You wouldn’t expect to hear “doggie, doggie, doggie!” at a children’s hospital, but Tristan, age 2, can’t contain his excitement when he looks down from his wheelchair and sees Buddy, a gray Miniature Schnauzer.
Buddy’s owner, Marilyn Nelson, lifts Buddy into a chair so Tristan can have a closer look. The young boy and the bearded dog stare at each other in silence. Buddy has been visiting with children for five years, and he knows that sometimes even the bravest child may need a moment to adjust to a new visitor, especially one with four paws.
As Tristan’s small face melts into a smile, Buddy scoots closer to the boy, ready with a gentle nudge and a soft lick. Tristan erupts into giggles as his mother looks on. Some of the tension in her shoulders seems to release, and she shares a laugh with her son.
It’s Wednesday morning, and that means the dogs are on duty at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children. Once a week, volunteers from Paws Across Texas and Pet Partners bring their canine companions to TSRHC to spend time with the young patients. These therapy assistance dogs and their owners bring smiles, laughter and, for many patients, a reminder of their furry friends waiting at home.
The path to becoming a therapy animal is no walk in the park — for the dogs or the owners. Every animal that enters the hospital has gone through a rigorous certification process. Before receiving their therapy assistance status, the dogs receive expert training and are put through a series of drills to test their patience and demeanor. Regular evaluations, veterinary checkups and special baths are just part of a therapy dog’s routine.
Charissa Kumar and her Standard Poodle, Izzy, have been volunteering for the past year. As a former X-ray technician in a cardiology center, Charissa is accustomed to helping patients.
“There are so many ways to help people that are not just technical — and this is one of them,” she says. Izzy takes her work just as seriously. “When her yellow therapy leash comes out, she knows! Her tail starts wagging, and she is ready to get in the car.”
As seriously as these dogs take their jobs, there is also plenty of room for fun. Micki Jenkins makes sure her Maltese, Kristal, is wearing the latest canine couture for her hospital visits. Micki jokes, “Kristal is always ready for her close-up.”
Kristal’s partner that day is an equally fashionable Tibetan Spaniel named Elvis. He trots down the hall, smiling at everyone and everything he sees. As Elvis wraps up a visit, his owner, Linda Herrrscher, tells him to “throw kisses,” and with a gesture worthy of the King himself, Elvis puts his paw to his mouth and blows a kiss to his new friends.
Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children has been caring for children since 1921. TSRHC treats children with orthopedic conditions, such as scoliosis, clubfoot, hand disorders, hip disorders and limb length differences, as well as certain related neurological disorders and learning disorders such as dyslexia. For more information or to get involved, visit scottishritehospital.org or Facebook.com/tsrhc, or call 214-559-5000.