Therapy dogs are giving children an extra hand, or paw, to hold as they get their COVID-19 vaccinations. The specially trained pups are helping children feel less nervous as vaccines for children ages 5-11 are rolled out across the country.
“It was the perfect distraction,” Micaela Inglese, volunteer coordinator at John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital in Buffalo, N.Y., told TODAY Parents. “Dog therapy ... really helps ease the nerves of the children that come.”
"We could focus on the dog instead of the shot."
Nolan Mabie, a 7-year-old from Buffalo, N.Y., credits a therapy dog named Chester for making his first dose of the COVID-19 shot an easy and enjoyable experience.
“It was kind of actually a little fun getting my vaccine. We met the therapy dog Chester and I got to pet him,” Nolan said.
Nolan’s mother, vice president of Oishei Children’s Hospital operations Jessica Mabie, says the dogs give kids a friendly face to look forward to while they're waiting for their vaccine.
“The environment was just so much friendlier, people were so much more at ease,” Mabie said. “You could tell, you know, there were some nerves from the kiddos that were waiting, but by having the dogs there... we could focus on the dog instead of the shot.”
In addition to New York, pet therapy programs are popping up at vaccine clinics around the country, most recently in Washington, D.C., Massachusetts, Texas and Colorado.
The presence of a dog gives children a comforting sense of control, said Kimberly Fryer, animal visitation and therapy program associate and child life specialist at the Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., and mom to facility dog, Barney.
“The kid may not have a choice whether they're coming in to get the vaccine, but they can choose where they want Barney to sit, they can choose if they want Barney to lay across their lap or sit next to him or do tricks on the floor while they're sitting there getting the vaccine. It gives them back a little bit of that control,” Fryer noted.
Inglese said she notices the difference when therapy dogs are at the vaccine site.
“You absolutely do notice a difference in nerves,” Inglese said. “You can see children's shoulders start to relax. They start to smile. They really don't pay attention to the vaccine.”
Children love the vaccine clinic therapy dogs.
“We, actually, at the end of it had kids crying because they didn't want to leave,” Inglese said. “It was the wildest thing I've ever seen.”
The dogs are so popular that Oishei Children’s Hospital created trading cards for them to give out to children.
“They get these trading cards with a photo of the animal on there. It says what their favorite snack is, what their best trick is, and it just kind of makes (children) more and more excited for something to look forward to, when they come back for their second dose of the vaccine,” Inglese said.
The dogs aren't just there for cuteness, Inglese said. “I really actually think it was necessary," she said. "We would have children legitimately out loud crying, and then the presence of a dog completely silenced them.”