Therapy dog lifts spirits at Children’s Specialized Hospital

Briana Vannozzi, Anchor | November 27, 2017 | Health Care

He’s only a week on the job, but one four-legged therapist is bringing the companionship only a canine can. Twenty-month-old golden retriever Burton is the first full-time hospital therapy dog in the state. He’s lifting the spirits of children and their families at Children’s Specialized Hospital, an RWJBarnabas facility in New Brunswick.

“What we know is that children will respond very positively to an animal during therapy or during stressful periods, painful procedures, things that have to happen to help aid in their recovery and rehabilitation,” said Bonnie Altieri, chief nursing officer at Children’s Specialized Hospital.

Therapy dogs are known to increase mental and physical stimulation. They can help regulate blood pressure and respiratory rates, reduce the need for pain medication and, of course, offer kisses during stressful times. Burton and his trainer Katie Ahlers completed a high-level therapy dog training program so he knows how to read body language or pain.

“So far, he’s just been comforting them, going up to them, letting them pet him. He’s had a couple of sessions where he’s played fetch with the kids and they’ve been throwing the ball or rope, which are two of his favorite toys. So we’re easing him in to make the transition nice and smooth so he’s successful,” said Ahlers.

Evidence shows petting dogs releases happy hormones like oxytocin and serotonin and can reduce stress and anxiety.

“Whenever someone is going through a workout or having a tough time getting through a day, Burton just brightens up anyone’s day,” said hospital patient Cameron O’Connell.

Burton’s training was funded by Mickey’s Kids Charitable Foundation, a nonprofit organization that raises money for therapy dogs for kids with disabilities. NorthStar VETS kicked in money to take care of any medical bills.

“We have to raise $25,000 to $30,000. We give the money to an organization called Canine Assistance in Georgia. They train the dog and raise the dog. And then, we send the people, in this case it was Katie and Jackie, down to Canine Assistance to be trained with the dog,” said Tom Meli, founder and executive director of Mickey’s Kids Charitable Foundation.

Burton is likely to be the first of many in the state. If the smiles are any indication of Burton’s job performance, he looks like a clear winner for employee of the month.