Hospitalization can be frightening, especially for children. So, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta employs a special team whose job is to make the experience less so. The most popular members of the team do their job without saying a word. That’s because they’re the four-legged members of Canines for Kids at Children’s.

Founded in 2009, Canines for Kids at Children’s is composed of 14 dogs and their primary handlers, backed by five secondary handlers. The handlers are all medical professionals whose work is enhanced by the presence of their dog. Everybody, including the dogs, is a hospital employee.

Most of the dogs are golden retrievers, Labs and Labradoodles — all  known for their intelligence and friendly, gentle dispositions. As hospital staff, the dogs are not “therapy dogs,” but rather specially trained “facility dogs.”

Therapy dogs are volunteer visiting dogs, certified by a variety of organizations based on their temperament and behavior, who along with their unpaid volunteer owners, make brief non-clinical visits to patients and staff.

Facility dogs, in contrast, work alongside professional healthcare providers, who in Canines for Kids at Children’s are mostly child life specialists. Their specialized training enables them to visit patients in almost all areas of the hospital, including those not eligible for therapy dog visits. 

Bella and her primary handler and partner, Canines for Kids Program Coordinator Kara Klein. (Special)

The Canines for Kids program coordinator is Kara Klein, previously a full-time child life specialist. In 2010, she and her facility dog Bella, a golden retriever, became the second dog-handler pair to join the program. 

Klein says facility dogs are an especially good fit for child life specialists, whose job is to help patients cope, heal and achieve treatment goals while at the hospital.

“The dogs help with reducing anxiety, providing distraction, modeling what a patient might see or experience and medical play like listening to the dog’s heart or putting on a bandage,” she said.

Now age 12, Bella has lived with Klein since she joined the program. She still goes “to work” every day but is reducing her workload as she ages. 

Even though Klein considers Bella “her” dog, she is technically owned by Canine Assistants of Milton the organization where she was born, raised and trained. 

“We don’t choose the dog,” said Klein. “Canine Assistants chooses the dog after meeting the handler and learning their needs.”

Bella and Klein, like all the dog-handler teams in the program, are “bonded,” thanks to the Canine Assistants training philosophy.

According to Canine Assistants Founder Jennifer Arnold, instead of traditional behavioral dog training that relies on commands and rewards, Canine Assistants dogs are taught through “bond-based learning/exercises … how to manage their own behavior and not rely on directives from a human handler.” Essentially, the dogs bond so closely with their human they model human behavior, such as how to climb on a patient’s bed without disturbing the maze of tubes and wires. 

But how specifically do the dogs make a difference? Klein recalls one case of an 8-year-old girl who refused to leave her room because of the way she looked after facial surgery. 

“When I said let’s take Bella outside to go potty,” said Klein, “she left her room for the first time in two days.”

Patients’ parents tell similar stories.

Diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia at just 15 months, Maddie Dukes, now age 4, has been in and out of Children’s Healthcare’s Scottish Rite hospital in Sandy Springs for most of her life. After undergoing a bone-marrow transplant, she was having trouble getting out of bed for her necessary walking therapy. But facility dog Tidings motivated her to get up and walk around the floor holding his leash.

“The joy, comfort and love these dogs give to the kids at Children’s is just the medicine they need. Maddie instantly felt better after a dose of Ty,” said her mother, Kristen.

For some patients, facility dogs have made the difference during the pandemic. Born with Treacher Collins Syndrome, brother and sister Malachi and Lexie Delaney have had more than 100 surgeries at Children’s and depended on the many activities normally offered. When those were shut down because of COVID-19, the Canines for Kids dogs became more important than ever.

“The facility dogs have bridged the gap our family has felt the past few months during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said the siblings’ mother, Amy. “The dogs remind [our children] of life before the pandemic and provide the sense of calm and comfort that leads to their healing.”

Canines for Kids and Canine Assistants are 100% donor-financed. For information, go to choa.org/donors-and-volunteers/canines-for-kids or canineassistants.org

Correction: A previous version of this column included an incorrect photo of a different dog and handler.

Carol Niemi

Regular contributor Carol Niemi is a marketing consultant and writes about people making a difference in our little corner of the world. If you know someone "worth knowing," email her at worthknowingnow@gmail.com