The nurses at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital lit up when they saw child specialist Renee Lee walk around the corner with a leash in hand.
At the other end of the leash was Pilot, the hospital’s new facility dog, walking slowly with a medical toy in its mouth. The two-year-old black Lab was on his way to play with his second child of the day – a little boy named Michael Dotson.
“Michael needs good energy today,” said one of the nurses when Lee knocked on his door.
When the dog-human team entered Michael’s room, the energy shifted from boredom to excitement. Michael didn’t talk much, but he knew how to play with pilot – a dog trained by Canine Companions, a service dog program that works with Baylor Scott & White Health of Irving to work with hospital patients, especially children.
Michael pulled the blood pressure cuff out of the medical toy case while Pilot rolled over on his side. Michael put it on his arm, put on the plastic earphones on the toy stethoscope, and pretended to be listening for a heartbeat. Pilot was then injected with a toy syringe and his fur was cut with toy scissors and brushed with a comb.
When the boy grabbed a gaming phone and put it to his ear, Lee asked, “Is it for me or is it for pilot?”
Medical play – the use of toys that look like tools seen in a hospital or doctor’s office to help children better manage their procedures – is one of Michael’s favorite ways to play with a pilot.
“Medical play with Michael has helped us many times,” said Lee. “Through medical play, he can process some of what he has experienced. He used to be afraid to bother with the medical toys, but it’s more of his first choice now because he’s spent so much time in the hospital. “
Pilot joins 5-year-old Dexter, a golden retriever, staff at Memorial Hermann’s Children’s Life and Expressive Therapies division.
Dexter’s carer, Christy Lange, has been working as a specialist in children’s lives for about a decade. As other child life programs around the country began working with service dogs, Lange saw the effects the animals had on patients, caregivers, and other hospital workers.
Unlike therapy dogs, which are trained to provide affection and comfort to hospital patients, facility dogs are trained to do work and chores for patients while at the same time giving love and creating a quiet, relaxing space, Lange said. Having only one dog around changes the energy in the hospital.
“There is something about being around a pet that releases everything in you,” said Lange.
Shortly after Dexter joined the staff in 2019, the demand for a second dog grew. But then the pandemic hit.
Dexter continued to work, visit, and play with young patients, but the number of adult hands that touched him had to be limited for fear of the spread of COVID-19, said Alyssa Luksa, director of Child Life and Expressive Therapies.
In March 2021, Lee was selected as the next handler on the staff. She applied to Canine Companions to train with a new service dog and eventually take it home – pilot. And she was thrilled.
“After Christy joined Dexter, I made no secret of how much I was interested in Canine Companions as an organization. I got involved in the volunteer chapter outside of work – I was Dexter’s ‘Aunt Nay,’ ”Lee said. “When things got more serious, I thought, ‘I’ll volunteer as a tribute!'”
For Pilot’s first two years, he lived with a puppy farm in Austin, where he was trained in 40 commands – from closing drawers to carrying kits and bags in his mouth – designed to help people with special needs. Service dogs working in facilities have a designated handler who is trained to shout the orders and keep the dog on course throughout the day. Facility dogs are specially trained to work with a handler who works in a health, educational, or long-term care area.
“Mating a child life specialist and a facility dog is magical,” said Lange. “It’s like finding the right person for you, but it’s about finding the right dog.”
When Pilot ends the day, he rides home with Lee and lives in her house with her family and other dogs. He also lives with them on weekends, goes jogging with the family and plays in the backyard.
But when it’s time to get to work, Pilot is ready. He puts on his work clothes – a vest and a Hermann badge with his picture on it.
“When the moment calls for it, the dogs have interventions with children in a cool, calm, and collected space,” said Lange. “They know how to switch gears from professional to playful when the opportunity calls for play and play.”
Compared to Dexter, a docile dog with two years of experience who loves to lie down, Pilot is brave, Lange said. Although he remains calm, he wants to be on his paws and watch what is going on all the time.
For 16-year-old Natayshia Coleman, being with a pilot is a nice change from her hospital days. Despite being plugged into a portable chest drain, she played fetch for about 10 minutes before taking time to rest and recuperate.
Natayshia, a high school athlete and a member of a dance team, was preparing for a volleyball game when one of her lungs collapsed. A A chest tube was inserted between her ribs to help her lungs recover after a difficult operation. Pilot’s presence after the procedure helped her deal with the fear, she said.
“Pilot loves you, but we would much rather see you outside than you ever come back here,” Lee said to Natayshia on the way back to her room.
Although Pilot is not based in a specific area, dog counseling can be obtained from any department in the hospital. Many come from surgery so he can help children move after surgery. Finally, a facility dog can be brought to work at Memorial Hermann’s main facility, but there is more red tape when working with adults, Luksa said.
So the dogs take care of the children for the time being.