“Would you like to meet my dog?” asks Don Helton as he strolls with his eight-year-old Golden Retriever, Ryder, through the waiting room of Children’s of Alabama’s Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders.
Ryder is one of more than 100 therapy animals with Hand in Paw (HIP), a nonprofit organization focused on improving the physical, psychological, emotional and educational well-being of both children and adults in a variety of situations. HIP sends animals into hospitals, nursing homes, libraries, schools, youth homes and more to comfort and encourage those facing life’s various travails.
Unsurprisingly, the children in the waiting room universally answer with a resounding “yes” to Helton’s offer of introduction. Most of the time, an actual verbal response is skipped over altogether in favor of gleefully hopping out of their seats and giving Ryder a gentle pat on the head, a belly rub or even a full two-armed hug around the neck.
At times Ryder is swarmed by groups of children as if he were a professional athlete or a singer in a popular boy band like One Direction. He actually is a celebrity of sorts around the hospital, and his photograph appears on what is more or less a trading card that is handed out to and cherished by children after he visits with them.
After a brief tour of the waiting room, Ryder moves on to the next part of his day: visiting patients in the facility’s 12-seat outpatient infusion room. Despite the hospital’s incredible job of doing everything in its power to make the infusion room not look like a hospital with its wood-colored floors, comfortable recliners and a television for each child, it remains a room where young children and teenagers are administered chemotherapy or treatments for other illnesses like sickle cell anemia and hemophilia.
No matter what activity a child was engaged in — whether watching television, playing on an iPad or talking to family members— Helton’s question, “Would you like to meet my dog?” grabs their attention. Headphones fly off, iPads are cast aside and conversations halt to meet the incredibly gentle Ryder. Some hop onto the floor to greet him and others let him lay his head their laps, but all wear gigantic smiles in his presence.
The kids don’t say much. Most are far too busy and eager to make the most out of their brief time with Ryder to be bothered talking to a bunch of boring adults. There is fun to be had, and they fully intend on enjoying every second. Each relative of a child chimes in with similar refrains: “He couldn’t have anything better happen today;” “She loves dogs more than anything;” or “He would sit here all day with this dog if you let him.”
If the treatments in the infusion room weren’t difficult enough on their own, many children and their families travel great distances to the hospital. The exhaustion and anxieties of the day are compounded by unfamiliar surroundings and being away from the comforts of home. Ryder and other animals like him help assuage the unpleasantries in a way no adult or video game can.
HIP predominantly sends dogs like Ryder as therapy animals, though they currently have a cat and a guinea pig as part of their team as well. They’ve also had a rabbit and a miniature horse in the past. “Goats, llamas and many other farm animals can be certified as therapy animals, too, though that’s rare in an urban environment like Birmingham,” said Associate Director Liz Wilson. “Dogs, cats and other house pets are much more common in an area like ours.”
Two people go on hospital visits with a dog: the dog’s handler and a therapy visit assistant who helps spray sanitizer on the children’s hands and hand out the photographs of the pets. HIP sends teams to Children’s of Alabama five days a week as well as other hospitals, rehab centers and nursing homes throughout Jefferson, Shelby and Tuscaloosa counties.
The service is part of HIP’s Petscription program, which aims to reduce anxiety and stress in the patient and make it easier for medical staff to administer treatment, thereby reducing the length of hospital visits and treatment times.
In addition to the Petscription hospital visits, HIP has two other programs: Pawsitive Living and Sit, Stay, Read. Pawsitive Living takes at-risk youth and pairs them with a therapy animal in one-on-one situations in order to teach anger management and compassion. The animal aids mentors in helping children open up and deal with difficulties they’ve faced.
Sit, Stay, Read is a program where reluctant readers and other children performing below their grade level read to therapy animals in a non-threatening environment in order to build confidence and improve reading skills. Those participating in this program tend to show improvement as readers and become more involved in a classroom setting.
An hour after Ryder’s arrival, he has spread smiles all over this particular wing of Children’s of Alabama, but his day is not done. Helton allows to Ryder rest in the lobby a bit before heading on to his second destination of the day, the VA Hospital several blocks to the east. It’s an entirely different group of patients, but they, too, will likely answer yes to Helton, eager to meet Ryder.
For more information, visit handinpaw.org.