The Furry Front Line

A boy in a mask holds the paw of golden retriever as they both look out the window.

Highly skilled hospital dogs bring comfort and clinical services to patients and staff at MUSC Children’s Health

by Shawn Oberrath

When Agnes dons her work vest each morning, she knows that it’s time to get serious: She needs to tend to her patients and then spend some time inspiring the staff. And Baskin is no different — he’s trained his whole life for this mission.

First up for Agnes is a young child with sickle cell disease. This boy has a great deal of pain that makes it hard for him to move well, but his doctors and nurses want him to stay mobile, so Agnes steps in to help. She lets her patient set the pace, and with her tail swishing along beside him, the boy pushes himself a little more and walks further down the hall than he could do without her.

As for Baskin, he’s in teaching mode this morning. One floor up from Agnes, he calmly and coolly drinks some liquid from a syringe to show a little girl how it’s done. His whole demeanor lets her know that this is not scary and that she can do it, too. Of course, the young patient will be receiving medication and Baskin got to have a treat, but he’s a pro and won’t let on.

Agnes and Baskin are professional hospital dogs who came to MUSC Children’s Health in September 2020 after two years of specialized training. And the stories above are just two examples among hundreds of ways that they bring help and comfort to the staff and patients at the MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children's Hospital and Pearl Tourville Women’s Pavilion.

Carolyn Donohue is the executive director of nursing for children's and women's health and mental health for the Medical University of South Carolina, and she pioneered the hospital dog program at MUSC. She was inspired by the canine staff at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, where 20 dogs work to cover the demand for their services. In 2020, thanks to Donohue’s efforts, MUSC Children’s Health received a $153,000 grant from the Dunkin’ Joy in Childhood Foundation to bring two hospital dogs to MUSC — this covered Agnes and Baskin’s training costs plus two years of expenses for the program.

Donohue’s first goal was to help patients. “It makes the experience of the hospital a little less scary for a child to have a dog involved in their visits or within part of their care as opposed to the very sterile environment that is normally there,” she said.

But furthermore, as she hoped, these canine comrades have a calming effect throughout the hospital – on patients and families, doctors and nurses, environmental service workers, and residents and staff. Agnes has even added mediation to her job description: She sometimes attends staff meetings that have the potential to get a little “hairy,” and her presence adds a layer of grounding so the meeting can be productive.

A golden retriever lies down with a pre-teen in a hospital bed.  
Hospital dogs take their job seriously. Agnes brings comfort to a patient by simply being at her side. Photo by Brennan Wesley.

So what’s the difference between hospital dogs and volunteer pet therapy dogs? Donohue explained that pet therapy dogs that work with their human volunteers are wonderful for companionship visits to provide support and affection to patients and families. But hospital dogs are employees first, pets second, and they help patients with specific clinical goals in addition to their petting-ops.

Baskin and Agnes have access to many clinical areas that are off-limits to pet therapy dogs, and their services are requested through the electronic health record just like any other clinical services. The duo provides distractions to support children through medical procedures, especially if the physician wants to avoid using sedation. They give the extra motivation a sick child needs to increase mobility, and they are experts at demonstrating how to take medication or sit still during a procedure — and showing that it doesn’t hurt. Finally, they bring some fun for children with extended stays — they can play games in the atrium, take a nap together or simply be there for kids and families.

Donohue researched several training facilities while planning for the hospital dog program, and she ultimately chose Canine Assistants, a nonprofit organization in Georgia. Canine Assistants uses a bond-based approach rooted in the belief that dogs who are asked to improve the lives of people in need also deserve to lead happy lives. The training focuses on teaching both people and dogs so they can cue each other rather than simply learning to perform tasks on command. Therefore, Donohue and the “canine crew” — five other nurses and child life specialists  — completed training in Georgia to be Agnes and Baskin’s official handlers.

In keeping with the bond-based approach, both dogs work 40 hours per week, but they have their weekends free and also tag along on vacations with their home families for a well-deserved break.

The program is off to a great start, but sometimes the demand for services is too high for just two dogs to handle. Donohue started a fund within the Children’s Hospital Foundation to accept donations specifically for this program, and she hopes to secure an endowment that will sustain the program and even allow it to grow. She would love to see a canine assistant on every floor of the hospital so their unique skills can benefit anyone who requests them.

As with any new program, there are some sensitive issues to consider. There are some children, families and staff who fear dogs, so the handlers are mindful of this possibility and respect the boundaries of those who do not wish to interact.

As recommended by the professionals at Canine Assistants, the program is not used for children under the age of 3 years because toddlers have a natural tendency to grab the face or head. And the dogs are generally also kept clear of anyone who has experienced a dog bite, although there have been cases where a child who was previously attacked still wanted to pet Agnes or Baskin, so it depends on the individual and their consent.

Baskin the golden retriever sits still
Baskin is a pro at showing children how to sit still while they undergo minor procedures or learn to take their medicine. Photo by Brennan Wesley.

Donohue is excited for the program’s promise. “So far we're doing a lot more learning about what they'll do and how we can expand that,” she said. “Right now we’re talking about MRI since we know that they can get up on an MRI table and lie down and show the child that this doesn't hurt.”

Some hospitals have actually been able to put the dog in the MRI scanner with the child to keep the patient as calm as possible. Baskin’s ample size will probably not allow that at MUSC, but Donohue and her team are experimenting with their options to see how they can add MRI assistance to Agnes’s toolbelt.

At the end of the day, Agnes packs it in with a quick wagon ride around the oncology floor, powered by the rapidly strengthening legs of a boy recovering from chemotherapy. And Baskin nips over to the administration desk for a quick hello and a nudge toward the drawer where all the best treats are kept: He knows the one.