The teens yelled “Sammy!” every time Sammy the English Setter walked into Linden Oaks at NCH's Adolescent Substance Abuse Program. They'd form a circle around the dog, and Sammy would sit in each person's lap as they took turns petting him.
"Some of these kids have this tough outer shell, and Sammy broke that shell immediately," says Joanne Walker of Schaumburg, Sammy's owner. “When they hugged him, you could see them transfer all the emotions they were feeling.”
Joanne added that she hears over and again from the teens that Wednesdays, the day of Sammy's visits, are the best. This is just one of hundreds of heartwarming stories from NCH's long-running Animal-Assisted Therapy Program (AAT), which has become so popular that it was expanded this year. NCH began the program in 2007 with 18 dogs who visited three floors of the hospital on certain dates. There are now 75 dogs that pay visits 365 days a year.
In October 2018, 15 carefully selected, well-trained dogs joined the team and completed an intensive, three-day certification process with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. They ranged from a tiny Chiweenie (a Chihuahua-Dachshund mix) to a 125-pound Leonberger (a large, friendly dog breed)."
The volunteer dog-and-owner teams work two-hour shifts, twice a month. They visit only patients who are comfortable with a dog visit and whose doctor has OK'd it. The dogs visit everywhere in the hospital except for the emergency department."
Not just any dog can be part of AAT. In fact, most of the 35 dogs that applied this year didn’t make the cut. One of them was cut in the first 10 minutes. Another was cut during the certification training.
Safety and sanitation are top priorities, says Kathy King, a 10-year volunteer who’s run the program for the past six years. To be accepted, each dog must pass a series of temperament tests. Among the requirements, they must be able to calmly stand in an elevator with eight other dogs, sit and stay in a chair next to a hospital bed, not be skittish around noises or strangers and never bark, jump on people or pull on their leash.
It's a big commitment for the dogs' owners, too. They must pass an extensive background check and follow strict rules about bathing their dog within 24 hours of coming to the hospital. Their dog must take a fecal test every six months to check for zoonotics (germs that can be passed from dogs to humans), and have year-round flea and tick protection. During visits, the dog owners must distribute hand sanitizer before anyone pets their dogs.
Volunteers say the effort is worth it to witness the joy their canines bring to patients. Scientific studies have shown that animal-assisted therapy can provide both physical and emotional benefits – things like calming anxiety, lowering blood pressure, curing loneliness, and assisting in memory recall, according to research by UCLA Health. It’s something all of the volunteers have witnessed.
"You just walk down the hallways with the dog and people smile," says King, who's had two dogs in the program, including her current dog Guinness, known for his extensive hat and costume collection."
Dogs and owners wear hospital-issued photo IDs. When dogs enter a room or area, they spend around 10 minutes sitting next to the patient, who can brush or pet them. Afterward, the patient receives a "trading card" with the dog's photo and background. AAT dogs also can be viewed on a photo wall by the critical care elevators.
Mary Deruz, of Palatine, whose 12-year-old Golden Chow mix Rudy (who "looks like a teddy bear”) joined the AAT Program in October 2018. She said she volunteered to do this because she wants to bring joy to people experiencing pain or sadness.
"It just brightens up everyone's day," Deruz says. "Even the staff comes out and says, 'This is the best part of my day!' That's good, because obviously you want your doctors and nurses to be in good moods, too."
Learn more about the AAT Program at NCH. Thinking of joining the team? Call Kathy King at 847-618-7968 or download an application.