Atlanta-bred dogs comfort kids in hospitals, facilities nationwide

Service dog Casper comforts a young patient at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Lisa Kinsel

Credit: Photo courtesy of Lisa Kinsel

Service dog Casper comforts a young patient at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite.

When your child has to enter a hospital, it causes anxiety for the entire family. Could man’s best friend ease that anxiety and make hospital visits more comfortable for your child?

Yes, according to Lisa Kinsel, manager of volunteer services at Children's Health Care of Atlanta at Scottish Rite.

Kinsel was the first handler at CHOA 10 years ago when it acquired a couple of service dogs from Canine Assistants, a Milton nonprofit that breeds and trains service dogs.

Hospital staff, pediatric patients and parents saw great benefits from the dogs' brief visits to the hospital. The positive impact on the emotional well-being and health of pediatric patients was tremendous, according to Kinsel.

Eleven dogs service Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite and at Egleston, and the Marcus Autism Center, Kinsel said. "The dogs work in different departments."

Kinsel started the program with a golden retriever and yellow Labrador mix named Casper, who had 18 months of intensive training.

Casper, like other hospital service dogs, lives with a full-time hospital staff member and works in the clinical setting by interacting with patients. Casper works with Kinsel at the Scottish Rite campus four days a week.

Kinsel said Casper fills roles the staff can't, such as easing kids fears about their breathing machine or distracting children who are receiving an IV.

Service dog Allis is a member of the Orthotics and Prosthetics Department. She helps motivate children learning to walk or use a prosthesis. She can be seen walking the halls with children and assisting in the lab at Children's at Meridian Mark.

Lancelot is a service dog for the Transplant Services Department at Children's at Egleston. He visits transplant patients in the clinic for pre- and post-transplant services and in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU), easing children's discomfort with his friendly disposition.

Service dogs at the Marcus Autism Center provide anxiety reduction, motivation and pain management, and help lower blood pressure and increase oxygen levels, Kinsel said.

The service dogs' contributions have captured national attention, Kinsel said. Hospitals across the nation are visiting Atlanta to learn more about the program and acquire service dogs. Missouri-based Children's Mercy Hospital now has two dogs; and Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center recently received two pediatric service dogs from Canine Assistants. The University of Michigan Health System has also visited.

Canine Assistants was the dream of an Atlanta physician after his daughter Jennifer Arnold was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis as a teenager. He was killed by a drunken driver before the program was established. Arnold and her mother worked hard for 10 years to make the program a reality, according to the nonprofit's website. It was founded in 1991.

Casper fills roles the staff can't, such as showing kids that their breathing machine is not scary, or distracting children who are receiving an IV or are frightened by the IV machine.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Lisa Kinsel

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Credit: Photo courtesy of Lisa Kinsel

Canine Assistants has 2,100 dogs placed in 48 states, according to dog teacher Karen Casto. The hospital dog program started in August 2009 with the first placement at CHOA, she said.

Initially, Canine Assistants trained rescue dogs. Since it is vital the dogs are people-friendly, the nonprofit decided to breed dogs at a farm in Milton, Casto said.

"We want to make sure our dogs are in good mental health," she explained. "We need confident and social dogs."

Breeds raised at the farm include golden retriever, golden doodles, and Labrador retriever and golden mixes because they have friendly dispositions and a soft mouth when retrieving items, Castro said.

There are 100-135 dogs at the Milton property, according to Casto. The training of young dogs can take 14 months to two years to complete. It depends on the dog's personality and ability learn, Castro said. The dogs are trained using the Bond-Based Choice Teaching approach, which uses only positive training techniques.

The organization’s clinical dogs are placed only in pediatric hospitals at present; expansion to hospitals serving both adults and children is in the works, according to Casto.