words and photos by Allyson Smith

Portraits line a hallway in Akron Children’s Hospital. But they’re not of patients or donors, or even doctors and nurses. Instead, these portraits are of dogs: Labrador retrievers, Pomeranians, poodles, Maltese, even a 175-pound Saint Bernard named Hodor. 

These are just some of the special dogs that make up the Doggie Brigade at Akron Children’s Hospital. 

The Doggie Brigade has been brightening the days of children, parents and even the faculty that get to see the dogs on a regular basis since 1992. 

I got to spend an hour following Hodor around the hospital as he visited patients. 

“When we got him as a puppy, I’d never even knew that anything like this existed,” explained Rob, Hodor’s owner. “But I had him at a farmer’s market once and there’s a bunch of kids running around and there’s probably four or five kids petting him all at once. And a guy came up to me and said, ‘Hey, have you ever heard of the doggie brigade program?’ He said, ‘your dog does really good around all these kids, you should look into it.’ And that was a year and a half ago.”

As we walked and talked, people stopped to marvel and pet the gentle giant of a dog. 

“The one thing about doing the walking and waiting areas is you get a lot of ‘drive-bys’ coming up, especially when there’s big groups of people,” Rob said.

Each handler is equipped with a stack of trading cards with each dog’s photo and a brief biography of them, including their name and favorite snack. Hodor’s favorite snack is peanut butter.

According to Whitney Romine, the advisor for the Doggie Brigade, dogs like Hodor provide lots of benefits for everyone in the hospital, including families of patients and faculty.

“Generally, it’s a morale booster… I kind of think of it like a family pet, in a way, except on a broader scale. You know, every house usually has some kind of pet, or a lot of homes in America have some kind of pet. It’s kind of like that where it brings the whole family together. So the Doggie Brigade, you know, brings the whole family of Children’s together,” Whitney explains. “It’s kind of a sense of normalcy and comfort; just someone coming in to hang out with you. No questions, no medical tests. Just a warm fuzzy body to be comfortable with.”

The dogs and handlers both have to meet certain requirements before they are allowed to volunteer at the hospital, Whitney adds.

“The most important thing for the handlers is that they get registered with a therapy dog organization,” she says. They can be registered with Pet Partners, Bright and Beautiful or Therapy Dogs International.

For the dogs to be registered, they are put in a sort of simulation to see how they react and behave in different situations.

Rob spoke about his experience with Hodor.

“In a room full of strangers, they would have fake loud arguments and see how the dog reacted to it, or they have somebody in a wheelchair or somebody in crutches just to see how the dogs reacted to it, and being able to walk through crowds of people without distractions.”

Rob says that he and Hodor passed the test the first time — “He was more ready than I was. He’s a little unshakeable” — although Hodor did have to get used to the elevator when they first started volunteering.

Doggie Brigade teams visit a lot of different areas in the hospital, including pediatric intensive care, oncology, school age and adolescent units, rehabilitation and transitional care units. Some of the more experienced dogs visit the burn center because they are better equipped than new teams to handle the smells. They also visit the radiology and infusion centers and emergency department.

Whitney says behavioral health is a popular assignment for new teams because the patients are not “medically fragile.” 

“For an exuberant dog, it’s a really good way to train them to have appropriate interactions if they just need a little polishing on that skill,” she says.

Dogs must be at least one year old and have lived with their owners for at least six months. Volunteers must be at least 18 years old and go through an interview process with the hospital. Both dogs and handlers must be in good physical health and able to interact with patients and families appropriately.

“For the dog, it’s especially important that they enjoy and seek out the interactions and that they’re friendly and polite in doing so,” Whitney says. “And when I say that, I mean like, you know, an excitable dog. They like to jump on people to get attention, so we make sure that our dogs are trained, that they know how to interact appropriately, like walk up and sit with somebody.”

If accepted into the program, teams must commit to at least 26 visits per year to ensure that patients get continuous visits.

For doggies and owners interested in being part of the Doggie Brigade, applications can be found online at the Akron Children’s Hospital website. Applications for the Akron team will be open soon. 

Allyson’s background is in media production and anthropology. Her hobbies include coffee, traveling, and taking months to read a single book.

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