At CHKD, a knock and “Can we visit?” Then the dogs take over.
Career options are slim for a three-legged sheepdog. Luckily Zachary, a Shetland, found a calling that required more heart than speed.
He and his owner, Diane Zaba, were marching with a local Sheltie rescue group in a Virginia Beach Christmas parade when he pulled up onto the sidewalk and ran toward a girl in a wheelchair. He laid his head on her knee. She smiled as Zachary stared up at her, tail wagging.
When Zaba got home, she researched online and discovered a career path that seemed perfect for her pooch: pet therapy.
Zachary was one of the first members of the Buddy Brigade, a team of dogs that have worked at Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters since 2005. The program, which has grown from seven members to 60, brings the dogs and their handlers into the hospital rooms of children, lifting spirits and easing some of their emotional burdens.
During her visits, Zaba has seen children laugh and open up. She’s seen the lines on worried parents’ faces relax.
“If only for a moment watching a dog makes them smile or lets them forget why they’re there,” she says, “that’s what pet therapy is supposed to be about.”
When CHKD launched its Buddy Brigade 12 years ago, pet therapy was gaining popularity in hospitals nationwide, says Joy Parker, the hospital’s Volunteer Services director.
Today, volunteer handlers and their dogs trot the halls of CHKD nearly every day, visiting patients, their families and hospital staff. The dogs visit the inpatient units, outpatient cancer clinic and, when requested by staff, pediatric intensive care. They also visit the hospital’s child abuse programs in Norfolk and Virginia Beach and the outpatient surgery center at Oyster Point in Newport News.
The dogs come in all sizes and breeds – from Sketch the labradoodle to Wilbur Bud the West Highland white terrier.
Zaba’s dog Zachary died several years ago, but she’s had three others in the program since. Her Shetland sheepdog, Cai, and Maltese rescue, Coco, are regulars at the hospital today.
To qualify, dogs must already be certified by a pet therapy organization, such as Therapy Dogs International. Parker keeps a waiting list of those that want to join, and once a year she invites hopefuls to the hospital for an evaluation. The dogs maneuver through mock visits to see how they handle a medical setting: beeping equipment, moving wheelchairs. Parker looks for pups that stay engaged with patients and aren’t fearful or thrown off by sudden noises. The best therapy dogs are calm and gentle, perfectly content to lie down and take a petting. “Professional floppers,” she calls them.
Take Luna, a 3-year-old Newfoundland.
One February afternoon, she and owner Elizabeth Kalman visited the hospital’s seventh floor, where patients were spending the night. Nurses snapped photos and bent down to pet her thick coat. Luna was happy to oblige, plopping onto the floor for a belly rub. At the start of their rounds, Kalman picked up a list of children they’d visit – patients who were medically eligible that day and whose parents had given permission.
When they got to Candice Simmons’ room, Luna snuggled her head into the 18-year-old’s lap. “You are so pretty, Luna,” Simmons said. “You’re beautiful.”
Kalman left behind a trading card if patients were asleep or not in their rooms. All Buddy Brigade members have them: a photo of the dog on the front, stats on the back. (Luna’s hobbies are traveling, snuggling on the couch and long walks on the beach.) At each stop, Kalman knocked gently on the door: “Hello, we’re with the Buddy Brigade. Can we visit?”
The pet therapy program is composed entirely of volunteers, and each dog visits at least once a month. Dogs are groomed before each visit, to ensure they’re hospital-ready.
“There’s just something sort of magical that happens when you bring these dogs in,” Parker says. “With the kids, sometimes they’re going through some difficult situations, they are withdrawn, maybe they’re missing their own pets at home. And they just light up and have this easy connection with the dogs.
“There’s nothing that’s expected of them. It’s unconditional love.”
Tom Kral knows what it’s like to be on the other end of a Buddy Brigade visit.
His daughter, Kristina, was diagnosed with cancer in 2005, when she was 5. She was admitted to the hospital just before her sixth birthday and felt depressed about missing her party. A couple days later, a Labrador named Bailey visited. Kristina lifted her head from the pillow. “It was the first time I’d seen her smile in a couple of days,” Kral says. “No one else seemed to be able to do that.”
Therapy dogs became a big part of the Krals’ hospital stays. They brought joy to Kristina’s visits.
She wanted a dog of her own, so they got her a miniature schnauzer named Sophie. For the last six months of Kristina’s life, the two were inseparable. In late 2006, Kristina died. She was 7.
A few months later, Kral was walking Sophie when he noticed kids flocking around to pet her. “It just hit me. It would really make Kristina proud and happy to know her dog was a therapy dog,” he says. “That was my mission: to make Sophie a therapy dog.”
Now part of the Buddy Brigade, Kral and Sophie visit families on the hospital’s eighth floor – the hematology/oncology unit where Kristina stayed.
Kral sees the doctors and nurses who once treated his daughter. It’s therapeutic for him, like a homecoming. Kristina’s dog was a part of her, he says, and bringing comfort to other children is a way of sharing her spirit and carrying on her legacy.
“When I do pet therapy,” he says, “Kristina is with me when I’m walking the eighth floor.”