Sick kids get a dose of canine comfort

THE WASHINGTON POST – Five days a week, Barney and Company get ready for work at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, DC. With help, Company puts on a red bandanna and Barney slips on a blue version that matches his vest. Badges dangle from their necks. The IDs include their name, photo and job title: facility dog.

Company and Barney are fluffy golden retrievers whose main responsibility is to comfort and console the young patients at the hospital. Before the coronavirus pandemic, 30 dog teams (canine plus handler) would visit the kids’ rooms for a cuddle or paw shake, and two miniature horses would sometimes hang out in the main atrium or TV studio. For safety reasons, the hospital had to suspend the animal therapy programme, but as full-time staff members, Barney and Company continue to show up for their eight-and-a-half-hour shifts.

“Our whole mission is to make things more comfortable and less scary for the kids,” said Allison Proctor, who runs the animal therapy programme and is Company’s human mom. “We take a medical goal – getting out of bed or motivating a child to walk – and use the dogs to achieve it.”

The pups also accompany kids undergoing certain procedures, such as bloodwork or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a painless but noisy test that produces pictures of the patient’s insides. The dogs’ presence can help calm jittery nerves.

Barney is a year older than Company, but the 11-month-old dog has been working at the hospital longer. Barney started in July, but Company has been coming to the hospital since he was 16 weeks old. Proctor toted him around in her backpack, which exposed him to the unusual sights (balloons) and sounds (rolling wheelchairs) of the hospital.

On a recent afternoon, Proctor put Company in his “office” (a gated play area with toys) and walked Barney to the elevator. Barney pressed the buttons with his nose, and the doors opened. Their first stop: the room of nine-year-old Brianna Frampton, who was in bed surrounded by bingo cards. Barney hopped up and lay down at her feet. Brianna rubbed his head, and his eyelids started to grow heavy like a sleepy baby’s. But he didn’t have time for a nap; he had several more appointments before his break.

Rachel Resnick made space on her bed for her guest. Barney gnawed on the 15-year-old’s stuffed dog before settling down in her lap. Proctor snapped a photo of them and put the Polaroid in a frame, so Rachel would remember this moment long after she had returned home.

Proctor swapped out the dogs for the next activity: hosting Yappy Hour, a live broadcast that airs on the patients’ TVs once a week. Company sat in a chair, his snout inches from the microphone. He sneezed. Proctor held up different types of stuffed dogs and asked viewers to guess the breed. There was a dachshund, Rottweiler and beagle, but no golden retriever. Growing antsy, Company jumped down and started exploring the equipment closet. The last event was story time. The kids were so excited to see a dog in the Healing Garden, Proctor never got around to reading a book. No one, especially Barney, seemed to mind.

Barney with patient Rachel Resnick. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST