A dog with gentle eyes peers over the edge of the bed at the tiny patient surrounded by a jungle of tubes. She waits for a word from her owner, and then gingerly climbs onto the bed, avoiding the tubes, and nestling near enough for the girl to reach out and stroke her soft, curly black fur.

For the first time today, the child smiles and snuggles closer, for a moment forgetting she’s very sick, and revels in the warm presence of her new furry friend.

Welcome to the world of dog therapy at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

The program allows a variety of dogs in various breeds and sizes to interact with patients at the hospital. Suzanne Thompson, who directs the therapy dog program, launched this unique team 20 years ago, and has proudly watched it expand and offer comfort and peace to those who are facing frightening illnesses and loneliness.

“Petting a dog helps patients relax and can even alleviate pain,” she says. “Patients who feel so out of control in many ways because of their illness can take back a measure of that control by interacting with a dog.”

Many patients, many therapies

Animal-assisted therapy can be used in numerous ways. In fact, dog therapy initially began as a way to help the elderly. The benefits range from physical ones, like increased activity and lower blood pressure, to social ones like improved conversation and memory. Interacting with dogs relieves loneliness and stress, and gives people a sense of purpose.

At Wake Forest Baptist, dogs make their appearance in several departments, including Brenner Children’s Hospital and the Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“The effects of this type of program can’t be overstated,” says Ben Curti, a licensed recreational therapist at the Cancer Center, who brings in six of the program’s 21 dogs to meet with patients. “I love their different personalities and their intuitiveness. They know when people aren’t feeling well, and it’s great to watch the dogs read emotions and respond.”

Curti also finds great inspiration in watching the owners, or handlers, as they’re known.

“Our dog handlers are the best people,” he says. “They see to it that the dogs provide a consistent experience in a safe environment, and that’s more valuable than many people realize.

Thompson agrees.

“Our volunteers are key to the process,” she says. “They offer [care] and connection by sharing their personal pets, and they put in a lot of time training their dogs, grooming them; traveling. It’s a commitment.”

Bringing joy, gaining perspective

Karen Pranikoff is one of those committed volunteers.

Her 4-and-a-half-year-old goldendoodle, Bella, was certified as a therapy dog in November of 2017. Pranikoff ’s husband works at Brenner Children’s Hospital, and he mentioned the difference the therapy dogs in the program make for patients.

“I thought about our dog Bella and what a great personality she has,” says Pranikoff. “I knew she had the right temperament.”

But that realization was just Bella’s first step in her medical career. Pranikoff took her through the complete training regimen at the Winston-Salem Dog Training Club, culminating with the therapy dog class that includes testing with Therapy Dogs International (TDI). TDI is one of several American Kennel Club-recognized therapy dog accreditation organizations. Others are Alliance of Therapy Dogs, Pet Partners, Love on a Leash, and The Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs.

Once Bella was certified, she visited a number of different environments in the hospital to find the best fit. To Pranikoff’s delight, Bella meshed well with the children’s hospital, and she started volunteering there in July 2018. The two spend an hour each Friday visiting the seventh, eighth and ninth floors of Brenner, always working in tandem with a child life specialist.

“The child life specialist advocates for the child, and I advocate for Bella,” Pranikoff says.

In the time since Bella has been on the therapy dog “staff,” she’s made multiple connections with patients and the medical teams that care for them. Pranikoff especially remembers one little girl who was in the hospital a long time. Bella became very attached to her.

“As soon as she got off the elevator, Bella would head straight for her room,” she recalls.

And the affection stood the test of time. When the girl returned to the hospital later for a procedure, there was a big reunion. Bella jumped on the girl’s bed and received a big hug from her young friend.

Pranikoff is clearly a part of the team as Bella’s handler and while Bella has good instincts, she still looks to Pranikoff for guidance. And Pranikoff loves the chance to share her dog with others, and is humbled by the perspective working with sick children gives her.

“It’s so worth the time you put in with training to provide joy to these kids when they are going through a difficult time,” Pranikoff says. “It’s a commitment, but I love seeing the expressions on the faces of these kids and their family members. And the nurses and doctors; they need some pet therapy, too.”

It must be worth it: Pranikoff is now working with Bella’s sister, Emmy, on her therapy dog training.

Meet the staff

Bella is one of 21 dogs who are making a difference for patients at Wake Forest Baptist. Here are a few of the generous dogs who brighten hospital hallways:

Bella

  • Black goldendoodle.
  • Became certified as a pet therapy dog in November 2017 and began volunteering at Brenner in July 2018.
  • Visits Brenner Children’s Hospital on Fridays and spends time on three different floors.
  • Fun fact: When she’s not at the hospital, Bella loves to go for walks, ride in the car, and play with her furry sister Emmy. Her favorite food is peanut butter but she’d rather have her belly rubbed than get a treat.

Emmie

  • Cairn terrier.
  • Nine years as a therapy dog.
  • Visits leukemia patients.
  • Fun fact: Emmie never makes a sound when she’s working and can be held just like a baby. After several months of visiting, a nurse asked if she was a “real” dog. The owner then showed the nurse a video of Emmie jumping, leaping, and barking when the water hose was turned on.

Chase

  • Chocolate Labrador retriever.
  • Two years as a therapy dog.
  • Chase visits Brenner Children’s patients in the behavioral health unit and adults in the stroke and brain injury rehabilitation program at the Sticht Center. At Brenner Children’s, the kids typically sit on the floor with him, petting, hugging, and asking questions. They enjoy watching him do obedience training and some tricks. Typically they say having therapy dog visits make them feel calmer and happier.
  • Fun fact: Chase loves the beach and when he gets close, he rolls his own window down. He’s never seen a wave too big to jump over or through to retrieve a tennis ball.

Zooka

  • English mastiff.
  • Two years as a therapy dog.
  • Visits the behavioral floor in the Sticht Center.
  • Fun fact: At these visits, when kids are petting him, he’s been known to snore. His owner calls it dog purring.

Sadie

  • Golden retriever/Labrador mix.
  • Eight years as a therapy dog.
  • Visits the Brenner Children’s pediatric oncology unit, the pediatric behavioral health unit, and wherever there is a request for therapy dog.
  • Fun fact: Sadie’s owner thinks nurses and doctors also enjoy seeing the dogs but they never interrupt a therapy dog visit. They make the owners, and their furry charges, feel important and special.
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