There are few things cuter or more joy-inducing than dogs. Their ability to connect with humans — uncanny. Their cuddling prowess — unparalleled. And their positive effects on health — pretty darn undeniable. Scientific studies have shown that simply petting a pup increases one’s output of the feel-good hormones serotonin, oxytocin and prolactin, in turn reducing anxiety and loneliness and amplifying comfort and mental stimulation. Spending time with furry friends can also help lower blood pressure, mitigate pain and, in some instances, even dial down the need for medication.
At Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego, our philanthropically funded PetSmart Paws for Hope program applies these findings to improving patients’ lives through one-on-one visits tailored to their unique needs, both emotional and medical. Through about 15,000 encounters each year, more than 30 dogs and their human counterparts work tirelessly to bring smiles, laughter and a greater sense of well-being to our patients and their loved ones. And, fun fact: Many of these doggedly devoted (see what we did there?) volunteers also happen to be Rady Children’s employees and their pets. Meet a few — both two- and four-legged — now!
Dr. Duthie and Tank
- Human: Susan Duthie, M.D., critical care physician in the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU)
- Dog: Tank the golden retriever, 6
- Years volunteering: About five
“[Tank and I] started a pilot program of having the dogs visit the PICU … which has now turned into a regular thing for a select group of dogs,” says Dr. Duthie, who also escorts other therapy dogs when Tank isn’t on duty.
“Volunteering with Tank is so much fun — the kids love the way he snuggles with them and cuddles and basically lets them do whatever they want. He also does a couple of tricks, which usually makes them laugh. He has a particular affinity for the oncology patients, and there have been a few who will let no one visit when they aren’t feeling well — unless it’s Tank.
One boy wouldn’t stop crying (the whole extended family was in the room, also very upset). Tank came in and, slowly but surely, the boy warmed up to him, let him up on the bed and the next thing I knew, the whole family was smiling and petting Tank and laughing. A month later when he left the hospital after finishing his first round of chemotherapy, his mom told me that Tank was one of the angels they met while in the hospital and wanted to take his picture with all the family.
Volunteering has given me a completely different and better relationship with some of our PICU families since they get to know me as Tank’s mom often before they know me as their doctor … I couldn’t love volunteering with Tank more.”
Kristin and Ollie
- Human: Kristin Gist, senior director of Developmental Services
- Dog: Ollie the goldendoodle, 3
- Years volunteering: Two
“[Kids] describe Ollie as a ‘cloud with legs,’” Kristin comments. “They like to snuggle with him in their beds or have him put his paws up on their bed or chair or wheelchair. The nurses, doctors and … EVS staff love to see Ollie … they all want their dog hugs, too!
Therapists [in Developmental Services] might be working with a child who is crying and not wanting to walk or dress themselves as part of their therapy. When Ollie walks in, the mood changes almost instantly! They will get dressed so he can get on their bed, or they will take a walk … or go outside the room in their wheelchair and hold the leash with me. It’s so gratifying to see the children go from crying to smiling after a few Ollie hugs. The dogs take their mind off their pain.
The teens on the Medical Behavioral Unit especially look forward to a dog visit. They are in the hospital for a while and get to know the dogs. They love to sit and pet the dog and chat about their own dogs, and often share pictures of their puppies with my escort, Cory, and me while we are there. The siblings … and the parents benefit, too!”
Annie and Hooligan, aka “Hooli”
- Human: Annie Lau, senior accounting analyst
- Dog: Hooli the goldendoodle, 5
- Years volunteering: Two
“Hooli likes to say, ‘hello,’ not only to the children but also to the family members. He loves stuffed toys so much and often tries to steal the children’s … his silly act brings laughter and smiles… we always warn the children to hide their toys! Sometimes, Hooli gets on the bed and lets the children pet him, and as he gets comfortable, it is hard to get him off when it’s time to leave!
Oftentimes, you don’t know what to say to sick children, and that’s why Hooli is good at what he does. When he walks into the room … you can just see how he lights up the children and brings smiles [to] their faces without having to say anything! You can see such a simple interaction … helping children forget their pain.”
We’re fortunate to have a wonderful base of volunteers who have stuck with their posts, and are not accepting applications for new canine therapy team members at this time. However, you can learn more about the program and catch an adorable dog’s-eye-view video of some of our pups in action on our website!