When Lucy walked into Tatum Hinds’ room in the hematology/oncology unit at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock (ACH) on April 3, a smile spread across the 9-year-old’s face as she let out a high-pitched “Hi,” while reaching out to pet the gray, standard poodle.
“She’s so fluffy,” Tatum squealed with delight.
Lucy’s owner and certified therapy dog handler Allan Gates let Tatum in on a not so well-kept secret.
"You know what she loves? Snacks. If you hold your hand out like a plate," placing the treat in the center, he explained, "you'll be friends for life."
And he was right. After her treat, Lucy was soon on Tatum’s lap, resting her head on her chest.
It was a moment that brought Tatum's mom, Tara Hinds, to tears. In October, her daughter was diagnosed with pilocytic astrocytoma, the most common childhood brain tumor, invading the thalamus and inner capsule of the brain. Though not malignant at this time, it is treated as cancer to prevent it from advancing. Despite receiving chemotherapy, her tumor and cysts grew. Tatum underwent brain surgery March 17 to remove parts of the tumor and decompress the cysts. She will continue receiving chemotherapy.
Tatum missed her pets in Oklahoma, and Lucy was the bright light she needed.
"She has never met an animal she doesn't love. She even loves snakes. All she cares about is going home to her animals," Hinds said. "It means everything. It's bringing joy in the hard times."
Tatum is just one example of how ACH's Therapeutic Animal Intervention Lifts Spirits (T.A.I.L.S.) program
has positively impacted patient and staff experience over the past 22 years.
Making patient experience better
Child Life Specialist Raquel Cooper has worked at ACH for 10 years and has been the T.A.I.L.S. coordinator for the past three years. The program started with a pilot study in 2000 and was officially implemented at ACH in 2001. It has 20 active volunteer handler/dog teams, with various breeds, from a golden retriever to a teacup chihuahua, allowing child life specialists to tailor dog visits to patient needs. For example, a child might prefer a visit from a small dog or an active dog who can do tricks. Arkansas Children's Northwest started its T.A.I.L.S. program in 2016 and has three volunteer teams.
Volunteers are certified through Central Arkansas Pet Partners
, the Little Rock chapter of the national Pet Partners
nonprofit specializing in animal-assisted interaction programs and training. Certification for therapy animal teams includes a day-long handler workshop, passing the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen test, final evaluation and continued training to stay compliant. It also requires practice, learning how the dog reacts in various situations and how to read cues from a dog that signifies if they’ve had enough volunteering for the day.
All handlers must also complete onboarding through volunteer engagement, provide vet records and vaccinations for their dog and shadow another handler/dog team.
Scheduled visits to pediatric patients at their bedsides are Monday through Saturday. Visits are two hours at most, and therapy dogs do not cross paths while working on campus. Frequently visited units are Camp Wannaplay, radiology clinic, hematology/oncology family house and second floor south wing clinics, along with team member visits.
The program takes sanitation seriously, providing hand sanitizer before and after touching a dog. A sheet is placed on the child's bed if they want the dog to sit with them. Therapy dogs do more than bring smiles. They help children engage more with child life specialists and their care team.
"These dogs make the patient experience better by providing a sense of normalcy for them. They also help reduce anxiety with being in the hospital environment," Cooper said. "They increase their communication with the medical team and provide a sense of socialization and comfort."
Tricks and Treasured Memories
Each handler and therapy dog brings their unique energy to the job. Vanessa Crossfield, vice president of Central Arkansas Pet Partners, has brought her 7-year-old border collie and poodle-mix Boom Shocka Locka, "Boom" for short, to Arkansas Children's for five years.
"His name is a big hit with the kids. They absolutely love it. And what's really fun is to get them to say it with energy, like 'Boom Shocka Locka!' It's fun to watch their faces and the adults as well," Crossfield said.
But that energetic name isn't just for show - he's a born entertainer, mesmerizing patients with a variety of tricks like picking up rings from a children's toy and stacking them on command. But he's also skilled at reading the energy of the room. He knows when he walks in whether the child is up for tricks or cuddles instead. Crossfield said one of her favorite moments with Boom at Arkansas Children's happened while walking the halls during bedside visits. Boom gently pulled toward one room with the lights off, but they continued their rounds, only to find him drawn back to the dark room.
"Again, I tried to stop him. About that time, the dad came out into the hallway, saw Boom and got on the floor. Boom went to him, and he touched his nose. And when Boom touches a nose, that means, 'I love you.' And it was one of the sweetest moments," Crossfield said. "The dad put his head on Boom's head, and it was just something that I will never forget. It was amazing."
When Boom is off duty, he enjoys standing at the door and barking at anything that “has the nerve to pass our house,” Crossfield said, as well as fetching and playing in the water.
With just as much heart, 4-year-old golden retriever Stan brings his gift of calm to patients, putting them at ease with his gentle demeanor and a silky coat to stroke.
"Stan is super calm and super loving, and he really likes to snuggle. He is happiest when he's in the bed with patients and they're petting him. He often falls asleep; we have to wake him up," said his owner, Marian Berry, who has been part of the T.A.I.L.S. program for 15 years.
At home, Stan has two speeds - sleeping or active. He's either snoozing on the couch or running, camping and swimming, carrying around his trusty stuffed toy, meaning whatever toy is closest to him.
He is Berry’s second therapy dog she’s brought to Arkansas Children’s and she has treasured all the memories.
"Working at Arkansas Children's Hospital with Stan is probably the best thing I've ever been able to do because I'm able to share this sweet dog and brighten the lives of children who really need it, parents who need it or staff. We do a lot of staff visits as well and it's just the greatest gift to have a dear little dog that you can share with all these people," she said.
‘That was incredible’
In the hematology/oncology unit, Lucy is a popular sight once a month on Wednesdays. Excited about the surprise visit on April 3, a group of registered nurses, including Bailey Wall, took a break to cuddle and pet her. She said having therapy dog visits not only helps patients but team members as well.
"It's tension released," Wall said, explaining she has dogs of her own. "I miss them here at work," so petting Lucy is a treat. "Especially on Wednesdays, the patients ask, 'Is Lucy coming?'"
Gates, president of Central Arkansas Pet Partners and a T.A.I.L.S. volunteer for six years, said Lucy’s story inspires children struggling with illness.
"She was born blind. We took her in as a rescue," Gates said. "When she was about 18 months old, she had cataract surgery, and now she can see. And that's always a feel-good story for the kids when we're visiting."
Like Boom and Stan, Lucy also has an innate ability to read a room and understand how best to comfort a pediatric patient, families and team members.
"For a patient that is really upset and is quiet, has a lot of equipment, Lucy is just uncanny at being the cuddle bug," Gates said. "She's cute, she's pretty and looks a little bit like a stuffed animal. Her fur is really soft when it's fluffed up, so she feels good to the touch. More than anything else though, I think she reads the stress in the patients. Good therapy dogs do this just instinctively, it's not any part of the training. She will seek out the stressed patient and work with him just by touch and cuddling and nuzzling. And it's remarkable how she reads that."
While her superpower is her quiet nature, it's a stark contrast to her personality at home. Gates explained that most therapy dogs behave like working dogs when their vest is on and normal dogs when off duty.
"She loves to play chase. As quiet and calm as she is, it's hard to believe, but particularly when she was younger, she kind of likes to play tackle chase. She loves to be running around and rolling and roll into another dog," Gates said, adding they are currently training a puppy to be a therapy dog when Lucy retires. "Lucy and the puppy are just inseparable."
But Lucy isn't ready to hang up her vest just yet. She and all the other therapy dogs have more work to do, improving patient experience at ACH and changing the lives of patients like Tatum.
As Lucy left, Tatum’s mom asked, “How was that?”
Tatum quickly replied, “That was incredible.”