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Omaha Magazine

Four-Legged Therapy: Dogs Help Young Humans At Children's Hospital & Medical Center

Aug 31, 2020 03:58PM ● By Tamsen Butler
Nancy Ethington and Pam Egger, golden retriever Gracie

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Pam Egger hesitated to guess the number of hours she has volunteered at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center’s pet therapy program. “I don’t suppose it’s up to a thousand hours yet,” she demured. 

The actual number surpassed her wildest dreams. Angela Loyd, who oversees Volunteer Services at the hospital, said Egger has volunteered 2,163 hours. After a shocked pause, Egger quickly mentioned that others in the program have volunteered far more hours than she has. 

She started serving as a pet therapy volunteer more than 20 years ago. Her husband passed away in 1998, which was then followed by a back surgery for her. “I was down in the dumps, so I adopted a red miniature dachshund named Schotzie,” Egger said. “I took him to a puppy class where I met a woman who said Schotzie would be a good therapy dog and told me to contact Nancy.”

Nancy Ethington is one of the pioneers of the pet therapy program in Omaha. She began her journey in 1994. “I was sitting at home watching the news on TV and a story came on about dogs going to facilities to provide comfort, and there’s my golden retriever Zoe with her head on my lap. I decided I wanted to share her with others, so I reached out to the lady featured in the news story. In the beginning we were only in senior care facilities, but when we started at the hospital they were thrilled. Initially there were only three of us. We coordinated with the volunteer office to develop the program initially—this was when Children’s was floors five and six at Methodist Hospital. The staff used to take us around to the shared rooms that were two patients to a room. We used our own dogs. The dogs earned certification through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs in Cheyenne, Wyoming, which improved the credibility of the dogs and the program.”

Therapy dog certification is a requirement for all dogs participating in the pet therapy program who are examined annually by veterinarians to meet strict guidelines. “There’s a difference between our dogs and service dogs,” Ethington explained. “Service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks to ease the handler’s disabilities. Therapy dogs are easygoing and love to have people pet them, bringing smiles to everyone they encounter.” Ethington said it’s a common misunderstanding that the dogs in the program are service dogs, but the furry friends in this program are therapy dogs. 

A lot has changed since the program’s inception in the 1990s. “I love how it’s grown,” Ethington said. “Initially there was pushback because pet therapy was in its infancy. The veterinarians had to assure the physicians and staff that nothing bad can be transferred from the dogs to the kids. One doctor in particular was doubtful and didn’t understand the benefits of the dogs, so I went in with him to a room where the patient was screaming, but once the little boy saw the dog he stopped screaming and just wanted to pet the dog. That doctor became one of our biggest advocates.” 

“We don’t really experience pushback anymore,” Ethington added.  

Ethington explained a typical therapy dog visit to a patient’s room: “Typically I’ll walk into a room and I always ask the patient, ‘Do you want to see my dog?’ and the patient will smile; it’s the best ‘thank-you.’ The dog will then go and put their head on the bed.  The kid will usually say, ‘He likes me!’.

“Our purpose is to benefit the kids. We’re there to assist—this is not a dog show,” Ethington said.

Therapy dogs need a specific temperament, one reason why there are only five in the program. “The dogs have to be mindful of the hospital environment without impacting medical treatments,” said Nikki Walker, supervisor of Child Life Services. Dogs that are startled or distracted easily aren’t the best choice for the program. 

The program is not suitable for all volunteers. Therapy dog handlers sometimes find themselves in sensitive situations and must learn to face patients who are nearing death. “I think the dogs can sometimes tell when we enter the room of an end-of-life patient,” Egger said. “I think they sense, ‘something’s not right here’. It’s tough at times, but parents will sometimes later say of the child, ‘They sure did love seeing the dogs’.”

“We see kids in a variety of situations that vary greatly,” Ethington said. “Accidents, cancer—the unconditional love and acceptance of the dogs helps in every situation. Sometimes I’ll go into a patient’s room and the patient’s unresponsive.  The child’s not moving, but the parents will put the child’s hand onto the dog’s head and the child will smile or open their eyes.” 

Walker describes Ethington as “dedicated, compassionate, and empathetic” and Egger as “outgoing, empathetic, and sweet.” “They really are a part of our team,” Walker added. “If they’re on vacation, everyone asks where they are. Without Nancy and Pam’s passion for the program’s plan, it wouldn’t be what it is.”

“They’re always willing to do something outside of the box. There was a request by an end-of-life patient to see a dog outside of normal hours. It meant a lot to the kid and their family that they did the visit.”

Loyd agreed. “When college volunteers wanted someone to come to their class to talk about the dogs and the program, Nancy and Pam went outside their normal hours.”

Ethington, Egger, and their dogs are loved by not only the patients, but staff and families as well. “Some of the staff look for them in the lobby and on their floors,” said Kristen Beat, marketing coordinator at Children’s. Loyd added, “The dogs can be a stress reliever for the medical students as well.”

“The patients are all so special,” Egger said. “They all know that when Thursday comes around we’re going to be there. The nurses tell us the kids get so excited. Even the parents, doctors, and nurses look forward to our visits.” 

Ethington said that although the dogs are trained, they’re still dogs. “We always have to move stuffed animals from the patients’ beds because my golden retrievers have always loved stuffed animals. Once someone was pushing a bin full of stuffed animals down the hall for the patients and I had to drag my dog Gracie away—she wanted those toys. Someone grabbed a stuffed owl from the bin and gave it to Gracie and she was happy and stopped trying to get to the bins.”

Egger’s therapy dog Roxie, a black and tan dachshund, was a bit of a celebrity at Children’s during her working years of 2006-2019. “Roxie was one of the best pet therapy dogs I ever had,” Egger said. “She was very dressy. I painted her toenails. She had tutus, Husker clothes, holiday outfits—and her nails always matched her outfits. She was better looking than I am.”

“Roxie was the best-dressed dog,” Loyd said. “Staff and family all wanted to see what she was wearing every day.”

Egger’s third therapy dog was named Dollie, a rescue from the Humane Society. “She was an older dog and was missing a leg. She couldn’t walk so I bought her a little umbrella stroller that I would decorate with feather boas. I put a sign on the stroller to let everyone know Dollie wasn’t lazy or spoiled—she just couldn’t walk.”

“Just bringing a pet in can make such a difference,” Ethington said. “I love that I’m given the opportunity to share the love. The dogs know why they’re there. It’s not about tooting our own horns, and that’s why it’s been so successful.”

She continued, “The commitment and dedication the pet therapy volunteers have creates a long lasting, highly respected program. We visit these children and families too, hopefully, provide a distraction, relieve stress and bring a smile to their faces.”

RN Sarah Chantry said it’s the normalcy of visiting with a dog that’s beneficial for the young patients. “There is something about petting the dogs that takes the stress out of hospital life. It just makes the day better, and the smiles from the kids are priceless. Their overall mood is lifted and it spreads to their family and even to the staff.”

“It’s such a great feeling,” Egger said. “They’re so glad we came. Volunteering just makes me feel really good. I’m glad I can do this for people.” 

Ethington and Egger don’t seem to mind the anonymity that comes with playing second fiddle to a furry volunteer. “They all know the dogs—they don’t know us,” Egger said. “And that’s fine.” 

Visit childrensomaha.org for more information.

This article first appeared in the September 2020 issue of Omaha Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.