David Garcia Mora could be heard crying from his room in the internal medicine unit at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital.
That is, until Honey Bear walked in.
Honey Bear, a 7-year-old Shetland sheepdog, is one of 20 therapy dogs that visit Nicklaus every week, comforting children and helping them in their recovery.
After petting the dog and holding her close, David, 12, calmed down. He became talkative, getting out of bed to walk Honey Bear around his room by her red leash.
“I love puppies very much,” he told his grandfather in Spanish.
Owner Linda Tartak and Honey Bear have been visiting children at Nicklaus for about two years.
“I have four grandchildren, and so when I see kids hurting or with tubes everywhere, it’s really hard for me,” Tartak said. “But when you see the gratification that they get … there’s kids that’ll look at the nurses and look at their parents and go, ‘This is the best medicine I could ever have.’”
Across town, Lady, an 11-year-old doberman pincher, and her pet therapy volunteer Blazina Zorilla make rounds at Holtz Children’s Hospital at Jackson Memorial. The pair have been volunteering at the hospital for four-and-a-half years.
“I just enjoy coming here, helping out with the kids, seeing them smile,” Zorrilla said. “Lady enjoys it. The thrill of giving the kids some relief from thinking what they’re going through. Even the parents — they appreciate it so much. I get goosebumps just talking about it because it’s great. I love doing it.”
Iris Golding, grandmother of 4-year-old transplant patient Dominic, said her grandson and his parents look forward to Lady’s visits.
“Every parent and grandparent wants to see an ill child, whether it’s your child or somebody else’s, light up when they’re happy,” Golding said. “And if a dog makes them happy, then so be it.”
Both Nicklaus and Holtz incorporate pet therapy to alleviate a patient’s pain, even if it’s only for a few minutes.
“For children who don’t want to get out of bed after surgery or are going through a hard treatment, they’re kind of encouraged because they can hold onto the leash and walk the dog a little bit,” said Lynn Heyman, director of volunteer resources at Nicklaus.
Dr. Brandon Korman, chief of neuropsychology at Nicklaus, said pet therapy can have lasting effects on a child’s health.
“Every time we have positive interactions with animals or humans, there’s a cascade of molecular reactions in the body,” Korman said. “Dopamine is released with a sense of euphoria. Enkephalins are released, which are cousins to endorphins but are much quicker, and they’ll reduce pain. Along with the positive feelings you get, there is a stimulation of the immune system, and the white blood cells go into action. In essence, by having these animals in the hospital, it does help them feel better in the moment but undoubtedly has beneficial consequences in the long run.”
Stephani Tinoco, a 19-year old cerebral palsy patient at Holtz, has been seeing Lady on and off for two years. She said she looks forward to the visits since her Chihuahua can’t come to the hospital.
“[Lady] just stands by your bed so you can pet her,” Tinoco said. “She makes me feel happy.”
Pet therapy doesn’t only help the patients. Beda Martinez, a child life specialist at Holtz, says Lady’s visits make her tough job a little more enjoyable.
“I have to say that Lady is probably one of the most important things just because she lifts all the children’s spirits, including your own,” Martinez said. “We see so many things every day.”
Pet therapy dogs go through extensive training and obedience classes to be allowed to visit hospitals. The dogs must be able to tolerate multiple people touching their face, mouth, tail and back. They have to follow commands and stay calm when they hear loud noises. They cannot go to the bathroom in the hospital or jump on the beds. Each dog is certified by the American Kennel Club and by the hospital.
Heyman, volunteer director at Nicklaus, said some dogs have the perfect personalities.
“There are certain personalities in dogs that are really great for pet therapy,” Heyman said. “Dogs that engage but don’t over-engage, so they’re not too overwhelming when they come to see the kids.”
Breanna Cano, a 16-year-old patient at Nicklaus, said it’s dogs like Honey Bear that provide a little relief in a bad situation.
“A lot of kids like animals so it’s comforting,” Breanna said. “I just got out of surgery, so it’s kind of like ehh, but this just makes you feel better.”