Fuzz Therapy at Children’s Mercy Hospital

Two of the newest members of the Children’s Mercy staff are bringing to the hospital their special brand of what cartoon characters Calvin and Hobbes called “fuzz therapy.”

Hunter and Hope, adorable Golden Retrievers, are on the job at the Adele Hall Campus and Children’s Mercy South (respectively), delivering comfort, cheer and day-brightening tail wags to help patients on their road to recovery.

The Child Life Facility Dog team: Missy Stover (standing); Hope and her primary handler, Allison Bowring (left); and Hunter and his primary handler, Aimee Hoflander (right).

Furry Companions

Hunter with Rachel, a 15-year-old who has been “best buds” with Hunter since he started working on 4 Henson/Hall in June.

Now that dream is a reality.

Hunter and Hope were trained at Canine Assistants, an Atlanta-based organization that provides service dogs to individuals and facility dogs to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and pediatric hospitals across the country. Missy and Amanda Woelk, also of Child Life, visited Atlanta about a year ago and were impressed with what they saw. (Hunter and Hope are owned by Canine Assistants but work here under contract.)

Hope works primarily at Children’s Mercy South, bringing smiles to patients like 9-year-old Lauren. “We got to go to the hospital and see the dogs work their magic,” Missy said. “We really feel like our kids would benefit, the way theirs do.”

Therapy dogs are credited with helping to meet patients’ physical and emotional needs, including taking their minds off their pain and problems, reducing anxiety and promoting shorter recovery times.

As 10-year-old Atlanta patient’s testimonial perhaps sums up best what a therapy dog can do for hospitalized youngsters: “He turned my frown upside down.”

Hope with Ahmed Abdelmoity, MD, Chief-Section of Epilepsy and Neurophysiology, a strong supporter of the Facility Dog program. Hunter’s primary handler is Aimee Hoflander of Child Life; they are assigned mainly to Hem/Onc/BMT on the Adele Hall Campus. Hope’s primary handler is Allison Bowring, also of Child Life; they are assigned primarily to the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center at Children’s Mercy South.

“These guys are full-time employees,” Missy said. “They come to work every day (Monday-Friday). However, one thing we would like employees to understand is that they are still in training mode. They are amazing dogs, but we still have a lot of work to do with them. We’ve been taking it slow, easing into it to make sure the dogs are comfortable in their environment.”

Ground Rules

The guidelines Child Life is asking employees to observe when they encounter Hunter and Hope are less restrictive than with some service dogs. Often people are asked not to pet or interact with service dogs that are working for people with disabilities to avoid distraction.

“We want employees to be able to pet Hunter and Hope,” Missy said. “Obviously, we want our patients and families to do most of the petting, but staff and anyone else who come in contact with them are welcome to say hello.”

Here are other guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Ask permission from their handlers before you pet Hunter or Hope.
  • Sanitize your hands before and after touching the dogs. Their handlers carry hand sanitizer at all times.
  • The handlers closely monitor the dogs’ diet, so please do not offer treats or people food.
  • Hunter and Hope can be handled only by their primary handlers or backup handlers who have received training.
  • Please don’t ask to take photos or “selfies.”
  • Although they are very kissable, we want to discourage “kisses” in the hospital environment.
  • If you allergic to dogs or are otherwise uncomfortable around dogs, please let the handlers know.

“Please keep in mind that when you see them, Hunter and Hope are working and probably on their way to spend time with patients,” Missy said. “Although we welcome employees to interact briefly with the dogs, we don’t want to take time away from patients. We’re asking employees to make it short and let the dogs get on their way.”

Hunter, Hope, Aimee and Allison with “Buddy,” a bronze sculpture in the garden of the Lisa Barth Chapel created by Kansas City artist Tom Corbin and given to the hospital by James B. Nutter Sr. and his wife Annabel earlier this year. The sculpture is a memorial to the Nutters’ deceased daughter, Nancy, who was a dog lover who owned eight dogs, one of which was Buddy, whom the sculpture was named after. Children and families at the hospital often visit Buddy to find consolation when they aren’t able to be with their pets at home. Read more about Buddy.

Requesting Visits

In their primary service areas of Hem/Onc/BMT and the South Epilepsy Monitoring Unit (EMU) and Epilepsy Clinic, nursing approval is all that is necessary to arrange a patient visit. Hunter and Hope have limited availability for visits in other units (excluding the ICN and PICU) by connecting with the Child Life specialist assigned to your unit and submitting a consult through PHRED. Signed parental consent is required and the patient must be free of isolation precautions.

Research Plans

One of the ambitions for the Facility Dog Program after the canines are acclimated is to document their impact.

“We’re really excited to do some research on how these dogs benefit the kids, determine if their hospital experience is better because of the dogs, and measure outcomes that can be attributed to having therapy dogs available,” Missy said. “We also would like to do research on benefits for our staff … for example, if an employee has had a really bad day or difficult conversation with a family, it would be a great research opportunity to see if the therapy dogs can help.”