Pet Therapy

Dogs help children to heal at A.I. duPont Hospital

As our group chatted in the bright atrium of the Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, it was clear who in our circle drew the most attention. She sat stately in head-to-toe black and white, a stylish pink accent flower around her neck. Many visitors stopped to say hello, admire her, or give her a warm hug and a pat.

So, who is this commanding presence? She’s Trixie, a gorgeous, gentle giant of a Great Dane, who at 4 years old and 155 pounds, is the largest of the furry friends in the hospital’s Pet Therapy Program. And judging by her popularity in the atrium, she’s perfect for the job.

The Pet Therapy program has been part of duPont Hospital for Children’s Child Life, Creative Arts Therapy and School Programs since 2007, says Melissa Nicely, the hospital’s Child Life Program manager. Nicely describes her department as helping kids and parents “make sense” of their situation and the stressors that often accompany a child’s long-term hospital stay. And the Pet Therapy program is a tremendous asset in that effort.

Patients enjoy almost daily interaction with the pet therapy teams, as well as biweekly visits from the Brandywine Zoo and even the occasional special visit of miniature ponies in the outside courtyard.
Currently, there are 15 teams of certified dogs and their handlers, all hospital volunteers. The dogs that participate in the inpatient program range in diversity from Trixie’s majestic stature to a Wheaten Terrier, some Shelties, a pair of Tibetan Spaniels and many mixed breeds. Typically, there is at least one therapy dog in the building each weekday, and the dog teams are assigned to different units to work with patients and their families.

“It’s incredibly important that children have something to help make this a more healing place to be,” Nicely says. “It’s a special kind of healing that our dogs provide. They help patients to be less afraid of their circumstances and give them a positive association with a hospital visit. Kids can return home and say, ‘Look at the cool thing I got to do in the hospital!'”

Nicely says patients aren’t the only ones who benefit from the visits. Parents, siblings, and even staff love the dogs’ visits as well. “Taking a minute to pet a dog can help bring a smile to anyone’s face,” she says.

The dogs and their handlers come to the program through many organizations, such as Therapy Dogs International and, more locally, Faithful Friends Animal Society. The dogs must be at least one year old and have passed obedience training or the “Canine Good Citizen” * test. Once dogs are certified, their owners reach out to the hospital to begin the volunteer process for the Pet Therapy team. Initially, all will do a “meet & greet” at the hospital, testing them in different situations with wheelchairs and hospital equipment and seeing how they engage with children and groups.

Chris Colket, of Drexel Hill, Pa., is Trixie’s owner. Colket has been involved with pet therapy for 10 years, with past dogs like his boy Dudley (also a Great Dane), and he also has worked in Alzheimer’s care facilities. Colket was at a dog show some years ago with one of his pups, and someone mentioned to him that his dog, with its calm demeanor, would be well suited to therapy.

After being certified through Comfort Caring Canines, he and Trixie began their service at duPont Hospital for Children nearly a year ago. “It’s so nice to volunteer like this; it really makes me feel great,” Colket says. “And they [the dogs] seem to enjoy it themselves. When I pull out Trixie’s collar and leash (which she only wears for her hospital duties), she gets excited because she knows she’s going to ‘work.'”

He and Trixie come to the hospital about once a week, visiting different units each time. On this particular day, they saw 10 patients, which is a lot for her, Colket notes. Her average is about five to seven per visit – they like to focus on quality versus quantity.

Trixie’s very gentle, says Colket, and she doesn’t mind if kids tug on her tail or play with her ears. Nicely says that big dogs like Trixie are the perfect height for children in wheelchairs or those restricted to a bed because they can’t reach very far.

Colket recalls that the previous week, Trixie climbed onto a patient’s bed and hung out for 25 minutes. That was great for both dog and child. “You learn to pay attention to cues from the family,” Colket says. “You’ll know when it’s time to move on or check back in. It’s about what works for each individual child.” Colket also takes notes about each visit.

As we wrap up our chat, a small visitor shyly approaches to ask if he can pet Trixie. She calmly obliges, and his smile broadens as he gingerly pets her head and she relaxes into it.
It truly seems this dog has found her purpose.

*Started in 1989, the Canine Good Citizen Program is designed to reward dogs who have good manners at home and in the community. It’s a two-part program that stresses responsible pet ownership for owners and basic good manners for dogs. All dogs who pass the 10-step test may receive a certificate from the American Kennel Club.