Life-changing care takes on a distinct form for each individual it touches. In the face of diverse disabilities, some of which are exceptionally rare, everyday life presents unique challenges. For Addie, Peppermint, and Millie, their training is as unique and exceptional as the challenges they face.
“The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the impact that Addie has is how her presence softens everyone around her,” said Sydney Connor, a Certified Child Life Specialist (CCLS) and Addie’s handler. Addie, a two-year-old golden lab trained by 4 Paws for Ability, is a facility dog at Dayton Children’s Hospital South Campus, earning her wings in the medical imaging department as the youngest “canine copilot.”
In 2021, Dayton Children’s Hospital announced the canine copilots program in partnership with 4 Paws for Ability. This collaboration aimed to fulfill their two missions of placing life-changing service dogs in the lives of children and working together in the relentless pursuit of optimal health for every child within Dayton Children’s reach.
The program took off with the introduction of Millie, a golden lab handled by Megan Budai, CCLS, and Peppermint, another golden lab handled by Kara Stoll, CCLS. From the very beginning, the impact of these canine copilots was immediately felt, touching the lives of patients and staff alike, and setting the stage for a remarkable journey ahead.
“When Millie first started working at Dayton Children’s Hospital. We had a five-year-old patient who had just been diagnosed with a brain tumor and was needing surgery. When we entered the room patient was pretending to sleep so he didn’t have to talk to more medical doctors. To our surprise, he peeked one eye open and then sat up quickly in bed, invited Millie beside him, and began to talk about his tough day. He whispered to Millie that having her there beside him made it all better. After surgery, the doctors wanted him to get up and out of bed as soon as he could tolerate it and less than twenty four hours after brain surgery, he and Millie walked to the hallway to play,” said Budai.
Millie, Addie, and Peppermint work alongside Dayton Children’s Certified Child Life Specialists to help patients reach specific goals. Stoll says, “Our facility dogs are outcome focused at the hospital. This can include motivating a patient during a physical therapy session to get up and out of bed, encourage a child to remain still during a blood draw or IV placement, demonstrate positioning for an MRI machine, or how to wear an anesthesia mask – and so much more!”
“It is so evident that kids trust dogs, especially the ones that work here,” Stoll continued. “These dogs are truly celebrities at the hospital. I see the work Peppermint does every day and know that she can provide a deeper, more meaningful level of care than any human could ever do.”
The canine copilots see new challenges and unique opportunities each week on the job. “It is incredible the way she breaks down walls that patients might put up for any reason – nervous, sad, angry, hurt,” said Connor. “Addie is also amazing at helping to normalize the hospital environment and motivate patients to accomplish seemingly intimidating tasks.”
Their impact at Dayton Children’s Hospital goes beyond therapeutic as well. “These dogs are true miracle workers and truly are the best medicine,” said Budai. “Often our patients have to endure really painful and scary procedures. We have seen that having one of our facility dogs present helps decrease anxiety, lower blood pressure, and heart rate, and provide distraction which overall assists in decreasing pain!”
Today, the canine copilots are celebrating one-year since expanding into their Springboro campus and adding Addie, their third facility dog in the program. “Our facility dog program has been so successful from the get-go, that there was no question about whether or not we would add a third dog to the team. We saw a gap in this kind of resource at our south campus in Springboro, and it has worked out so well for us. Since her addition to the team last year, Addie has become comfortable working in various areas. Her trust in me as her handler has grown, which allows me to involve her in all kinds of situations,” said Connor, all of which Addie, Peppermint, and Millie are trained and ready for from years of rigorous training at 4 Paws for Ability.
4 Paws for Ability Senior Trainer, who trained Addie, Bethany Hickman, says, “During training, Addie would often find herself ‘hooked up’ to an IV pole, heeling next to a wheelchair, visiting elementary schools and nursing homes, or even walking the halls of doctor’s offices with trainers getting their annual checkups!”
4 Paws for Ability facility dogs are specifically trained to succeed in the environment they will work in, allowing our service dogs to maximize their life-changing impact immediately. “Addie is trained not only to pick up dropped things but also plays games to encourage children to be active. She has been taught to walk alongside children to encourage a sense of independence and add a little bit of normalcy to their hospital stay. She shows the children how to properly dress for surgery, how to not be scared to get a shot, and shows them it’s okay to wear a bandage or get their cast removed,” says Hickman. “She will also demonstrate how to participate in tests like MRIs and X-rays.”
Their training also includes behavior disruption, a task designed to calm patients who are struggling with an emotional meltdown or sensory overload, according to Connor. “They help reduce the need for sedation in some situations, which is a healthier option than sedating everyone we can, they help shorten the stay of patients, which gets them back home sooner. They represent innovation because facility dogs are still a new aspect of promoting positive coping in the pediatric hospital setting.”
The life-changing care of 4 Paws for Ability service dogs can be felt in the wings of Dayton Children’s Hospital with a canine copilot not far away. “Dayton Children’s Hospital values compassion, collaboration, and innovation – which all align with what we do as facility dog handlers on a daily basis. Dogs can offer compassion and companionship which can increase compliance in the medical setting,” said Stoll. “We knew that this would truly elevate patient care. We are constantly trying to think of new ideas to grow this program.”
Each day brings unique challenges for us all, all of which 4 Paws for Ability facility dogs, and the canine copilots are ready to take on. Like the children 4 Paws for Ability and Dayton Children’s Hospital work with, Addie, Peppermint, and Millie are exceptional and unique, trained and prepared to change the lives of everyone they meet.