One visit from a therapy dog is all it takes to bring a smile to a child’s face. Just ask any of the participants in the Pet Pals program run by the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. The program has succeeded in providing safe canine affection to the youths at American Family Children’s Hospital.
The Pet Pals crew consists of 25 dogs and their handlers who pass the comprehensive behavior and health tests required to interact with pediatric patients. To be eligible, canines must be screened and trained to visit sick children and provide affection.
Among the therapy dogs is Elvis, a Pekingese who was the runt of the litter and was born with a slightly deformed jaw. Owner Jane Warncke said that’s why his tongue hangs almost permanently outside and to the side of his mouth, making children laugh.
The pet therapy program makes trips to the children’s hospital on Tuesdays and Saturdays, with three or four dogs in tow. For the patients, the visits help ease physical and emotional pain, reduce boredom and anxiety, and make a difficult time a little easier, according to the university.
The program started in 1996, after a UW-Madison veterinary student approached instructor Linda Sullivan, D.V.M., and dean Chris Olsen about wanting to use her dog to help children. After meetings with risk management, pediatricians and allergists to assess the feasibility of bringing animals into contact with ill children, the program took a year to set up.
“Any little germ can pose a lethal danger,” Sullivan said. “The good thing is that in partnering with the School of Veterinary Medicine, we’ve got the expertise to know how to deal with that.”
After the dogs demonstrate consistent, good behavior, they undergo a physical examination and laboratory screening to assure they are healthy enough to visit the patients. Once accepted into the program, they are required to have twice-yearly health evaluations.
For more information about the program or to learn how to help, click here.
To learn how your dog can get involved in pet therapy, visiting hospitals, nursing homes or even helping children to read, contact these therapy-dog certification groups: