Veteran Akron Children’s Doggie Brigade™ handler Bernie Schwartz smiles as he pets the glossy coat of his black Labrador retriever, Maddie.
“This is the best job I’ve ever had, and I’ve never made a dime,” he laughed.
Schwartz joined Doggie Brigade in 1992, when former director of volunteer services Marilyn McGuckin lead the efforts to create the hospital’s volunteer pet program. He is an original handler, with 25 years of experience.
The Doggie Brigade originally started with 8 handlers, who were permitted to visit one floor during a 2-hour block with only 1 dog at a time.
After the first year, the entire hospital was approved for visits except Oncology, Emergency, pediatric intensive care unit (PICU), neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), Surgery Pre-Op/Phase I, MRI/X-Ray, food and medication preparation areas. Now, the in-patient floors, Oncology, Emergency, PICU permit teams and Dialysis have an open invitation for the Doggie Brigade to visit. In addition, there are more than 90 dog-handler teams on the roster, and the program is sponsored by Milk-Bone.
“This event was the 25th Anniversary of the second Animal-Assisted Interventions hospital program in the nation. It is a tribute to the hard work of the staff and volunteers who came together during a time when dogs in hospitals was almost unheard of to develop safe, effective strategies to establish one of the most recognized and respected programs in the field,” said Whitney Romine, volunteer office coordinator and Doggie Brigade advisor.
It’s important to recognize the dogs and their handlers who volunteer their time and comprise heart of this valued patient service.
“We are privileged to experience the incredible support of not just the Akron community, but much of northeast Ohio. Our volunteer handlers come from all over to share their best friends with our patients and families,” Romine added.
Doggie Brigade teams, like Schwartz and Maddie, visit children in hospital patient units and at special events. While these dogs bring joy to patients and families, something remarkable also occurs.
“We’ve seen a patient that’s not wanted to eat take a bite, a patient in the Burn Center smile and take a few steps – all because a Doggie Brigade dog was there for support and encouragement,” said Romine. “The stories are endless and the impact they have every day is monumental.”
There are innumerable stories about how the dogs bring comfort during hospital stays which can be disruptive and scary for patients and their families.
Patients often report that for the duration of their 5-10 minute visit, they forget about their illness or pain and feel like a kid. The involvement of the dogs is also attributed to lower blood pressure, lower stress, increased patient compliance with treatments and increased rapport with staff and their environment.
Romine looks forward to a year of celebration with the dedicated volunteers who make the program such a success. She also looks forward to continued growth.
“We hope to create new ways for Doggie Brigade to reach as many patients and families as possible,” she said.
As times have changed, and continue to change, Schwartz emphasized that one thing remains the same: the natural bond between dogs and kids.
“Dogs are like people, and kids respond to that,” he said. “These patients get to feed them, pet them, play with them and gain some comfort. For a few moments, everything is normal. We give these kids a happy memory that will last a lifetime.”
View all of our dog teams here.
Did you know?
- Akron Children’s has welcomed 311 Doggie Brigade dogs since 1992.
- Today there are 61 Doggie Brigade dogs, with service ranging from 12 years to 1.
- Akron Children’s Doggie Brigade includes a different kind of 4-legged member, Petie the Pony.
- With 25 years of service and an original program member, Bernie Schwartz is the longest-serving Doggie Brigade handler.
- The original dogs used to wear special T-shirts and kerchiefs. Today, the dogs still proudly wear their kerchiefs.