Facility dog lights spirits at Nebraska children’s hospital – Washington Times

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) – Maddie McCarville’s family and friends did their best to make her hospital room feel like home.

Colorful paper lanterns hung in one corner. A menagerie of stuffed animals lined the counter.

But one thing was missing: her dog, Frankie.

Children’s Hospital and Medical Center had just the furry friend to fill the void. Sven, a 2-year-old golden retriever, is a full-time hospital employee.

Maddie, 9, met with Sven almost daily for walks around the sixth floor during her 17-day stay in May. A bout of pneumonia sidelined the Omaha girl, who has cystic fibrosis. Sven works from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day and goes home with his handler. He motivates patients to get out of bed after surgery or treatment, comforts kids when they’re scared or sad and makes the hospital feel a little less like a hospital. He is evidence that pups can brighten the days of patients, staff and visitors, hospital officials said, and research backs it up. Several studies have shown that dogs decrease stress levels and promote relaxation among their human companions.

Sven is a first for the metro area. Therapy dogs make regular visits to the Nebraska Medical Center, Methodist Hospital and multiple CHI Health locations. But those health systems do not have a “facility dog.”

Sven came to the Omaha hospital in November from Canine Assistants, a Georgia-based nonprofit that trains and places service dogs. The organization has 2,100 dogs in service across the country. Of those, about 40 are hospital facility dogs, Karen Casto, director of the group’s hospital initiative, told the Omaha World-Herald (http://bit.ly/2sr6g63 ).

From four days old, puppies start their training by becoming familiar with people. Staffers hold puppies, touch their paws and talk to them. Eventually puppies go out in public and take trips on a leash to stores.

To be placed in a hospital, dogs need to enjoy the hustle and bustle, and be friendly.

For the first 20 months of Sven’s life, he visited four of Georgia’s children’s hospitals. In addition to getting used to the equipment, Sven learned to read the environment: He knows to stay still when a child is receiving medication and that tears typically mean he needs to give extra love.

Sven knows to tuck behind his handler when an elevator is crowded. On the clock, he doesn’t get long potty breaks. The dog also can sit still for long periods of time while he waits for his next command.

Like Sven, most dogs graduate from the program and are placed by the time they’re 1½.

Sven and his handler, Britta Carr, work with inpatient and outpatient children on recommendations from staff.

After some chemotherapy treatments, Rafael Moreno doesn’t want to walk. The 8-year-old with cancer keeps track of each painstaking lap when he walks with staff or family. But when Sven accompanies him, it doesn’t feel like a chore.

“You think it’s just a dog, but it makes a difference,” said Irma Moreno, Rafael’s mother. “It makes him relax.”

Sporting his green vest, Sven strolled into Rafael’s room on a Thursday in May, stopping to sniff the bed and some breakfast remnants.

Rafael eagerly hopped up from his hospital bed to take the dog’s leash. With his mom wheeling his IV, the Omaha boy searched the sixth floor for paw print-shaped clues. During the scavenger hunt, he talked to Carr about his post-hospital plans and a past trip to Disney World and speculated what Sven’s favorite color is.

The boy has become so close to Sven that he bought the dog a camouflage plush shaped like a bone, with his own money.

When children get feeding tubes put in through their noses, Sven lies on their legs. It keeps the child from kicking or squirming, but all they know is that Sven is cuddling with them.

Sven also is trained to demonstrate how CT scans work, much to the delight of the young patients. He climbs onto the bed and lies still while he goes through the machine. During the process, Carr stands by his side, much as parents will do for their children.

Those skills are what separate Sven from therapy dogs that can sometimes be spotted roaming the hospital halls. Therapy dogs can’t enter patient rooms or aid in procedures and demonstrations.

“You wouldn’t expect to have a dog walking around a hospital. It’s fun to see how much it lifts everybody’s spirits” – patients, family, doctors and nurses, said Drew White, charge nurse on the sixth floor.

On Maddie’s final day in the hospital, she put on a tiny surgical mask and grabbed Sven’s leash for some laps around the sixth floor.

“It gives her a break from worrying about what she’s got going on. It’s a reprieve from that and lets her be a kid,” dad Jason McCarville said.

Maddie, of Omaha, shared her favorite things about Sven: He’s silly, he’s smart and he’s “super cute.” But he was more silly than he was smart and cute when he took her flamingo slippers for a chew toy.

Generally, Sven is on his best behavior at work, but he occasionally has his slip-ups and acts like a puppy.

To keep clean, each week Sven gets groomed in a mobile spa outside of the hospital. In addition to a bath and blowout, he gets his nails trimmed, teeth brushed and ears cleaned. Every other week, a groomer trims his coat.

Children who pet Sven are asked to put on hand sanitizer before and after interacting with him. It keeps the dog from getting sick and keeps kids from picking up germs.

These policies are the result of six months of research by hospital staff.

The hospital’s chief operating officer, Kathy English, was intrigued by the idea of facility dogs after seeing an article about the program at a Texas hospital. Officials at Children’s also saw the benefits that therapy dogs provided. Having Sven took it to the next level by allowing him to play a role in patient care, they say.

The hospital donated an undisclosed amount to Canine Assistants for Sven – the organization does not charge a fee.

During breaks, Sven curls up in a dog bed under Carr’s desk, where he naps next to his favorite toy – a Minnie Mouse stuffed animal. If he’s been working hard, Carr will hand him one or two treats.

Soon Sven will have homemade snacks to look forward to. Maddie and her mom have been browsing dog treat recipes online and experimenting with different ingredients, like flour, peanut butter and carrots.

They plan to drop them off to Sven when Maddie goes back for an appointment in July.

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Information from: Omaha World-Herald, http://www.omaha.com

Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.

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