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Therapy dogs bring smiles to children's hospital patients

In a new program at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, dogs provide physical and emotional support to pediatric patients.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

Ashley Fiffick loves her pet dogs, and her job working with pediatric patients at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. So, the child life specialist was overjoyed when she got the opportunity to become the handler for one of the hospital’s new pediatric service dogs.

"She was out of it and not happy and in a lot of pain, and it was a few minutes later Drummer came in and her eyes just lit up and he jumped right on the bed," said Leanne Biondo, mother of 9-year-old Gia.Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center

Fiffick is the primary handler for Drummer, one of two golden retrievers obtained by Cincinnati Children’s from Canine Assistants, a Georgia-based organization that breeds and trains service dogs for pediatric hospitals across the country. Drummer’s fellow service dog, Leica, works with patients in an outpatient setting, while Drummer’s focus is on inpatient children.

“We do a lot of playing with the children, and we really work with them on building trust and on supporting them through procedures,” said Fiffick, who is a member of the Division of Child Life and Integrated Care at the hospital. “Our team works to help kids cope with their hospital stay and make it as positive as possible, so what we do kind of already fit in with bringing the dogs onto our team.”

Cincinnati Children's patient Nathaniel Taylor, visits with Drummer during an inpatient stay.Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center

In February, Fiffick and the other dog handlers from her team spent a week in Georgia meeting and picking up the dogs, and being trained about how to work with and care for them.

Two-year-old Drummer works a 40-hour week alongside Fiffick at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, and goes home with her in the evenings and on weekends.

Drummer and Leica spend their workdays visiting with patients who have had surgeries or procedures, and helping with physical and outpatient therapy. Hospital staff, patients, and parents have all seen great benefits from the program since its beginning a few weeks ago.

JoAnn Snell’s 9-year-old granddaughter, Gia Biondo, has been at Cincinnati Children’s for several months due to pancreatitis. Snell says that despite her family’s best efforts to make Gia feel better, it was Drummer who helped turn her recovery around.

"Gia is like a whole new person when Drummer walks in," said Biondo.Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center

“Gia had been so sick every single minute of the day. Months and months went by with us not seeing a smile on her face or joy in her eyes, and the first experience of seeing our little Gia back was when she and Drummer got together,” said Snell. “It was amazing — just being able to have the promise of seeing him again gave her something to look forward to and it was a turning point for her…He started her on the road to being better again.”

Fiffick says the dogs help with everything from encouraging a patient to get up and walk around after surgery, to helping kids work on throwing and reaching through a game of fetch.

“Plus, they encourage smiles when there haven’t been smiles in so long,” Fiffick told TODAY Parents. “I love those smiles, and the way they incentivize patients and just make them so happy in ways I never could. My main job is to make kids happy and make the hospital a positive place, and they do that twenty fold.”

16-year-old Kendall Schuler visits with Leica during an outpatient procedure.Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center

Sharon McLeod is senior clinical director of the Child Life and Integrative Care program, and says the dogs have the ability to bring comfort to patients on a level that nurses, physicians or therapists are unable to.

“Their ability to hop up in bed with a patient, allow the patient to love on them and hug them — that is something that would not be within the boundaries of any other employees here at the medical center,” said McLeod. “But for Drummer and Leica, that is exactly what they are here to give and share.”

"My vision is that this is the beginning. Our dream is that it will grow, and we will have more members of our hospital staff that will have beautiful, wagging tails," said Sharon McLeod, senior clinical director of Child Life and Integrative Care at the facility.Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center

“My vision is that this is the beginning,” McLeod continued. “Our dream is that it will grow and we will have more members of our hospital staff that will have beautiful, wagging tails.”