Twenty years ago, Akron Children’s was the second hospital in the country to create a volunteer pet program, dubbed the Doggie Brigade. The program, patterned after a similar one at Denver Children’s Hospital, makes it possible for dogs to visit youngsters on our patient units and at special events.
Our program was developed at the urging of then Volunteer Director, Marilyn McGuckin. It came on the tails of a Pet Visitation Policy, which was adopted six months earlier. The policy, which still exists today, allows children who are hospitalized for more than seven days to be visited by their own pets, with approval from their doctor.
“The goal of the Doggie Brigade and our pet program is to make the kids feel better – to get them to laugh and smile a bit during their hospitalization,” said McGuckin 20 years ago, adding that studies have shown that these pet visits can be therapeutic.
The Doggie Brigade participants have to pass examinations by a veterinarian and an in-depth behavioral screening to ensure their suitability for the program. Only about 48% of the dogs who apply pass the screening test.
The first such screening, and most of them thereafter, was performed by Ken McCort, of Four Paws Canine Training School. McCort still volunteers his time to assist with the program and has had several dogs qualify and visit patients.
The first corps of Doggie Brigade members included Ernie, a mixed breed; Ruby, Mollie and Simon, all golden retrievers; Moose, a Belgian Sheepdog; Bumper, a black lab; Winston, a black pug; Gretch, a miniature schnauzer; and Crumpet, an Olde English Sheepdog.
The dogs were specially outfitted with “Doggie Brigade” T-shirts and kerchiefs. The T-shirts are no longer a wardrobe staple because they were making the dogs too hot, but the dogs still proudly wear their kerchiefs.
These days, the handlers give each patient a trading card, similar to a baseball card, featuring a picture of the dog and its breed information and interesting personal information, such as the dog’s favorite snack. The cards are highly coveted by our patients, especially our frequent fliers, many of whom have amassed quite a collection.
Many tail wags later, the impact of those pioneering dogs and volunteers has been immense. On average, about six dog teams make their rounds each day. In addition, a couple of the Doggie Brigade teams even help inspire the patients in our rehabilitation programs.
The program now counts more than 80 dogs and includes a second Doggie Brigade program at our Boardman hospital. And nationally, many children’s hospitals have followed our lead and have now adopted their own Pet Partner programs.
However, Akron Children’s Doggie Brigade remains unique in at least one respect. It’s the only Pet Partners program to include a horse, Petie the Pony. Owned by Victory Gallop, a therapeutic horseback riding program in Bath Township, Petie and his handlers Sue Miller and Kim Gustely have been visiting patients’ bedsides since 1996.
Do you have a Doggie Brigade experience to share? We’d love to hear your story, or you can comment on this post.