Therapy dogs soothe sick kids and staff at Children’s Healthcare

Innovative program spawns similar programs throughout nation.

Lisa Kinsel knew Canines for Kids would be a successful program at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, but she never fathomed that one day she’d teach other hospitals how to integrate the program into their facilities. She didn’t imagine speaking about the program to congressional members or a televised conference, but that’s exactly what happened, all because Lisa had an idea. Best of all, that idea led her to Casper, her four-legged best friend.

An idea with legs

For 28 years, Kinsel, 67, worked in volunteer services at Children’s. One of her duties was coordinating a weekly visit by a friendly pack of service dogs, courtesy of Canine Assistants, a Milton-based non-profit that breeds, trains and places service dogs with people who have mobility issues, Type 1 Diabetes, seizure disorders and other special needs.

Trained for 18 months and taught to remain calm in various situations, the labradors, golden retrievers and a mix of the breeds would parade into the hospital every week, tails wagging as they visited the children. Kinsel loved witnessing small hands run through fluffy fur and worried faces lift with joy.

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Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Treating the dogs like celebrities, children would pose with them for photos. One day, while Kinsel was delivering the photos to patients, she came to the room of a little boy who sat in a wheelchair and had a tube in his mouth that made it difficult to speak.

“He looked at the photo of himself and the dog and asked, When will they be back?” recalled Kinsel. “I knew he would have to wait a whole week to see a dog. He didn’t need to wait so long.”

That’s when Kinsel had the idea to start the Canines for Kids program, bringing dogs on staff to be at the hospital every day. Big picture, she envisioned a dog working full-time in every department. She presented the idea to Dr. Dan Salinas, who was chief medical officer at the time.

“We loved the idea from the start,” said Salinas, who’s now chief of community clinical integration officer for Children’s.

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Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Leader of the pack

Canines for Kids launched in 2009. It began with one dog, Casper, who also became Kinsel’s personal dog.

At Canine Assistants, they say the recipients don’t pick their dogs, the dogs pick their owners. Casper, a golden retriever yellow Labrador mix, definitely chose her, said Kinsel.

“We were an immediate, easy match,” said Kinsel, a smile in her voice. “He and I pioneered Canines for Kids together. We learned what to do and what not to do. We tipped our toes over the line occasionally to try to expand his usage for medical procedures. We were a team.”

Lisa and Casper’s daily routine involved responding to visit requests from different departments. Every day was different, the heartwarming stories endless. There was the teenager with autism who was scared about his medical procedure. Casper greeted him in the hallway, walked with him back to the surgical room and laid with him as he was put under anesthesia. There was a catatonic child who hadn’t spoken in a week, but finally did upon meeting Casper. Casper laid beside patients, sat still while their little hands stroked his fluffy fur. His presence was therapeutic, and not just for the children.

“One day I received a call requesting Casper in the ICU,” said Kinsel. “I asked what patient room, and they said, No, it’s a doctor. The doctor had lost a patient and was having a terrible time. She needs to see Casper, the nurse on the phone said. It turned out, everyone benefitted from having Casper at the hospital.”

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Sunshine on dark days

The program was so successful, it soon expanded.

In 2010, Bella came to work in CHOA’s child advocacy center where she helped staff build rapport with patients, making them more comfortable talking about their issues and receiving services and procedures.

“I’d worked at Children’s for two years before I got Bella,” said Kara Klein, 37. “My role was always to help patients with coping and reduce anxiety. Once I had Bella, she enhanced the role in a way I never could have provided.”

Bella offered non-judgmental comfort, said Klein, noting that dogs don’t notice bandages or patients without hair. Canines for Kids dogs love you, no matter your story.

One day Bella was called to a room where a 14-year-old girl was refusing a genital exam. It is Klein’s job to explain to the patient why the exam was necessary and help her agree to it. Klein spoke for 30 minutes to the girl, who petted Bella the whole time. She agreed to the exam as long as Bella could be on the table with her. Stretched behind the girl like a pillow, Bella rested her head on the teen’s shoulder like a soft restraint. I couldn’t have done it without you, Klein heard the girl tell Bella when the exam was over.

Canines for Kids currently has 14 dogs on staff. Uno is a golden retriever assigned to cardiac services. Lotus is a black Labrador assigned to a chaplain and assists with staff support. Dory, a golden retriever known as the camp director, goes to Children’s sponsored camps to tuck kids in at night when they’re homesick and encourage them to swim in the pool. Tidings, a goldendoodle, works in the pediatric ICU.

Ryder Oliver, 8, is a big fan of Tidings.

“Tidings was one of the first that made Ryder react after brain surgery,” said Ryder’s mom, Kristin Oliver. “My husband and I were clearly not enough motivation for Ryder to try to move, but Tidings was. He was also the first to make Ryder smile after surgery.”

Ryder received treatment for brain cancer for seven months. Much of that time was spent inpatient.

“As a parent, you look for anything to bring happiness to your sick child,” said Oliver. “The Canines for Kids program is priceless. These dogs brought sunshine to a dark day not only for Ryder, but my whole family.”

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

A legacy of love

According to Children’s, it is the first pediatric hospital in the country to incorporate a facility dog program. Hospitals across the country have adopted the program and send staff to Children’s to be trained on integrating dogs into hospital life. Donors now pay for dogs from Canine Assistants to serve in hospitals nationwide.

As the program’s founder, Kinsel has been invited to the Capitol in Atlanta to speak about the benefit of animal assisted therapy in pediatrics. She also spoke on the topic at a televised symposium in Washington, D.C, sponsored by Hill’s Pet, creator of Science Diet Dog Food.

In 2018, Kinsel and Casper retired.

“Casper wasn’t happy about it,” said Lisa with a laugh. “He loved putting his vest on every morning and going to work. I know he missed that.”

Last September, Kinsel’s husband John died suddenly. John, like Lisa, loved Casper like a son.

“I don’t know how I would’ve made it over the past year without Casper,” said Kinsel. “Just as he helped all of those children over the years, he helped me every single day. He gave me a reason to get out of bed in the morning.”

Sadly, last July, Casper died at age 14.

“I’m so thankful he was here for me,” said Kinsel, “and now I know he’s with his dad.”

To honor him and all his years of service, Children’s commissioned an artist to create multiple bronze statues of Casper. There are two, one in each of the two support buildings for administrative staff in Brookhaven. Kinsel hopes one day a statue of Casper will be placed in the lobby at Scottish Rite Hospital, where he can continue to greet everyone with a smile.


MORE INFORMATION

To learn more or make a donation to Canines for Kids program, visit www.choa.org