When it comes to a child’s recovery, anything that can provide comfort and ease the process is important. Animal-assisted therapy is one avenue that is making a difference and we had the opportunity to speak with Mary Lou Jennings, who is the program coordinator for Paws Can Heal at the Phoenix Children’s Hospital.
The Paws Can Heal program became an official part of the Phoenix Children’s Hospital in 2004.
“A child life specialist, Teresa Boeger, saw the benefits of therapy dogs when an asthmatic child would see her breathing ease and her oxygen levels increase during visits. She realized that they needed someone that could help focus the therapy dog visits on the patients that could really benefit from it in a therapeutic way. Boeger applied for grant money and got the funds to pay for a full-time person to dedicate their time to a therapeutic program to meet the needs of the patient.”
The financial component to any charity is crucial to its ability to help others. After numerous attempts to meet with a major corporation’s CEO, it was the efforts of a 12-year old boy that led Paws Can Heal to eventual corporate partner PetSmart.
“It’s a wonderful story. There’s a kid named Michael, who’s 12 and [he] wanted to do a golf tournament. He had heard about us, wasn’t a patient or anything, but wanted to come to the hospital. In the course of his looking for sponsors for his golf tournament, he tried to reach the CEO of PetSmart and actually got an appointment to meet with him. None of us could, we had tried, but this 12-year old boy was able to get it. Because he did that, they had started sponsoring the golf tournament and they got involved in the program. Up until then, PetSmart’s mission was to really help in the spade/neuter area and shelters, not in the therapy dog world. Over the years, it became important to the CEO to try to find a way to make that happen. So we looked at the ways of changing the way their corporate donations would work, so this could be something they could support. As the program and our needs grew, he kept encouraging Michael to ask for more from them. So that relationship just grew to the point that PetSmart really liked this relationship. Now PetSmart sponsors programs like ours, in other children’s hospitals throughout the country. I feel really blessed to have been a part of that. Because of their partnership and their support, my time can be spent training staff, volunteers and helping patients and not focusing on fundraising. We’re able to train more therapy dog teams and team escorts to get more interactions with patients.”
Since their inception in 2004, the Paws Can Heal program has seen tremendous growth, helping between 10,000-11,000 kids per year.
“We started off with five therapy dog teams and we now have 50. We also have about 30 therapy dog team escorts. Team escorts are a part of that process. If we don’t have a team escort, then the team can’t visit with patients. We have to have the extra person to provide safety in the interactions. We’ve been able to increase our program and see more kids because we have the additional volunteers. We’ve grown significantly in the number of patients we are able to see because of that. When I started I was the only one. We could see maybe 10, 20 patients a day. It’s a great way for people who love kids and dogs and see the value of this type of interaction, to get involved.”
While research continues to fully understand the benefits of dogs in a hospital setting, many patients have experienced them first hand. While not a child, Evan Marshall took a big step forward in his recovery thanks to his dog Butters, while he was in the hospital.
“That’s a really important spot for me. It’s an area that we’re working on. We have a research project going on in the hospital. The main thing that these therapy dog visits will do for kids is lower their anxiety levels. That means that they breathe better, they eat better [and] they sleep better. It also means that patients are more easily convinced of doing the hard work to get better. Getting out of bed and walking, taking medication or doing physical therapy. That little bit of lowering anxiety levels is key for kids who are in the hospital because they are at a constant state of high anxiety. Your body kind of shuts down its functioning in order to be prepared to fight off whatever this scary thing is. So it does slow down healing processes. One of the things we’re doing research on is to measure cortisol levels in kids before and after therapy dogs visits. That [way] we can show the scientific community the physiological effects of therapy dog visits. Those of us that are in it, see it every day.”
Some may question having dogs in a hospital, due to safety and cleanliness concerns, but they go to great extents to ensure that there are zero negative impacts on patients.
“They’ll be some that are confused with having dogs in a hospital setting. We go through a lot of expense to ensure our therapy dogs are clean and healthy. That we’re not spreading anything with our therapy dog teams and we work really closely with our infection patrol professionals, to make sure that we’re following all of the recommendations about animals and hospitals and how to do that in a safe and effective way. Because our staff sees us working so closely with them and following all those rules to the letter, they feel confident that we’re doing good things for their patients and not bringing them any harm. We’ve never had an incident in the hospital in the 11 years that I’ve been here that was in any way detrimental to a patient.”
While Jennings and the volunteers are purely patient focused, there is a reward helping children recover from various health issues.
“It’s the interactions with parents afterward. They tell me how this program has motivated their child in a way that nothing else could. They saw a change with their child because of it. They see this as something that nothing else could do. They’ll tell me later, that the memories that the child has with their time at the hospital are all centered around the dog visit. That kid doesn’t walk away going “ugh” hospitals, the pain, the fear and all [of] the can be hospital experiences at the hospital. It’s wonderful when the volunteers get the opportunity to hear that back from parents. That’s the best part.”
The two greatest areas of need in order to sustain and grow the program, are volunteers and funding.
“We need volunteers. Not only people that have therapy dogs, but we need that other volunteer that is so critical. We need that team escort. People that have experience with dogs, kids and hospitals, they help us take therapy teams to more patients. That’s key and I’m always looking for more of those volunteers. That volunteer is usually someone that may be a student that may be a going off to school, they’re here for a little while and then they move on. Or it’s a person that recently retired that’s looking for a volunteer opportunity and they do this for a while until they move on to the child crisis center or the humane society. It’s not the type of thing that people usually stay with, they’re usually moving on to the crisis center. I’m always needing more of that. Therapy dog teams come and stay, they don’t leave us. The one thing that slows our growth is more team escorts, that’s a huge need. People don’t realize that that exists. Getting the word out to all those people that might be interested is very helpful.
The other area is the financial support. Buying the t-shirts from the Dback Nation program and attending our annual Dine with Your Dog fundraiser are great ways to financially support us.”
Mary Lou Jennings and the entire Paws Can Heal team are making a difference each day, for those that are recovering in a hospital.