Grant Partner of the Week #18 | The Center for Human-Animal Interaction



Tricks With Jack


Stewie has been part of Dogs On Call for nine years, ever since he turned 1 year old! This 8-pound sweetheart is well known for his tricks and soothing presence with the pediatric patients he visits every Thursday. Young Jack Becker has spent years getting to know Stewie and it is immediately apparent how much these two trust each other. “Stewie usually only likes to do his tricks on the carpet for stability,” explains Joan Nuttle, Stewie’s human. “But he’s willing to stand on his back paws with Jack because Stewie trusts Jack will catch him.”


Jack agrees with this testament to their bond. “Stewie is fun and makes me feel better", he says. “It’s good to have something to do [at long clinic visits]. I really like his bowling trick that he does with one paw,” referring to Stewie’s talent of knocking down bowling pins with his one paw instead of his using nose like most dogs would do. Jack and his mother Stephanie are always grateful to see Stewie arrive. “The dogs are a great distraction,” says Stephanie. “They have a calming and therapeutic influence that other humans don’t always bring and it chills out the kids. And, of course, there’s the entertainment value!”


Jessica Hale, Program Coordinator for The Center for Human-Animal Interaction, says, “Being with the dogs gives the patients something to do during long appointments while simultaneously giving the parents a break from distracting their child. If a medical provider needs to speak with the parents, letting the patient visit with the dogs gives them that opportunity.”




Tuesdays At The ASK Clinic


Lucy visits pediatric patients every Tuesday at the ASK Clinic. Lucy and her human mom, Pam Oken-Wright, joined Dogs On Call in 2016 and immediately knew working with children with health challenges was where they belonged. “I taught young children for thirty years and we really understand each other,” says Joan.


“They’re my people and Lucy showed me right away that kids were her people, too.”


Lucy has a special way about her as she prances through the clinic to see all of her friends, looking like a little cloud with her fluffy gray and white coat.



“Every age group seems to get something different out of the visits. For preschoolers, they are eager to walk her,” Pam observed after witnessing how a three-year-old patient established a special routine with Lucy. At first, the child wasn’t quite ready to pet Lucy but she would “give” Lucy a treat by tossing it on the floor. “Toddlers communicate with their faces, and you can read their facial expressions to see how engaged they are with Lucy,” says Pam. “After a while she would ask us to come back and even started to follow us out of the room.” As the young patient became more comfortable spending time with Lucy, she asked to walk the dog around the nurse’s station. Pam attached a second leash for the patient to hold onto while Pam kept the guiding leash herself.


Other children in the same age group saw the little entourage circling the clinic and a trend was born. “I realized that the toddlers feel more confident and empowered when they move around with Lucy,” says Pam.


"It gives them a sense of control that can be hard to grasp during a clinic visit.”


The toddlers also will stop and ask staff and fellow patients if they want to pet Lucy, showing how closely they watch Pam’s own interactions with the dog.




Therapy Dog Benefits



Walking the therapy dogs is only one of the many benefits of having Dogs On Call visits at the ASK Clinic. Patients often spend many hours seated in chairs while they receive infusions. While the ASK team does an amazing job of providing music therapy, art lessons and a variety of games, there is nothing quite like having a furry friend snuggle close to you. On the harder days when patients aren’t feeling their best, they can just lay their head against the dogs and rest together. “For the older kids, they just want to cuddle,” Pam explains. “Lucy sees a lot of kids who really don’t feel well, but after cuddling with Lucy a bit, they visibly relax and perk up.”


“The therapy dogs bring a lightness and fun energy to the clinic, especially for the kids who are there so often. With everything that they are going through, it gives them something to look forward to when they come in,” says medical student Megan Foley while petting therapy dog Kepler. “Staff benefits from the visits so much as well,” she says. “The visits improve our mood which, in turn, allows us to pour more energy into our patients.”


Both Lucy and Stewie are available to help when children have procedures performed, as well. Having ports flushed can be difficult and uncomfortable, but a furry friend sitting beside a child patient provides just the right encouragement. “We’ll have patients holding their parent’s hand on one side and petting the dog with the other,” says Joan, Stewie’s person. “Being able to support and comfort the patients and their parents is the most rewarding part of therapy dog visits. It touches my heart to see tears of gratitude in parent’s eyes when they see their sick child happily interacting with our dogs amidst their difficulties. When they tell us how much the visits mean to them, I always say that I receive so much joy in return and the dogs receive lots of hugs and kisses for a job well done.” 





Established in 2001, The Center for Human-Animal Interaction has many functions at the VCU Medical Center. Alongside therapy dog visitation through the Dogs On Call program, The Center fulfills its mission of improved health and well being through human-animal interaction by offering Pet Loss Support to those in need, educational presentations to local groups throughout the Richmond Community, electives for health science students, and internationally recognized research on the human-animal relationship.




For more information about the Center for Human-Animal Interaction visit: |  FB @humananimalinteraction | Twitter @DogsOnCall | Instagram @DogsOnCall


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