Savannah strolls into Arkansas Children’s Hospital ten minutes early for her shift working with hospitalized children, name badge ready, hair perfectly poofed. She’s been doing this for five years and it never gets old.

Sometimes she’s just there to be a calming presence, and other times she helps kids improve their motor skills, range of motion, and mobility. Twice a month, she’s scheduled to do group activities and the rest of the time, she’s on call for individual therapeutic visits.

Her favorite patients are the babies. When she spots one, she can’t resist sticking her nose in the baby carrier for a closer look. Her job doesn’t involve much talking. She mostly sits on the floor, hands out business cards, and lets the kids brush her hair.

Oh, and did I mention that Savannah is a Standard Poodle?

Since she was three years old, Savannah has been working at Children’s with her handler Meredith. Last Tuesday, I had the opportunity to meet them at the hospital and shadow them while they worked.

Esther Pipkin: The Godmother of Therapy Dogs

If it weren’t for Esther Pipkin, there wouldn’t be a T.A.I.L.S. program (Therapeutic Animal Interventions Lift Spirits). More than a decade ago, when she worked in the rehab department of the hospital, she started reading about the amazing results healthcare professionals were seeing with animal-assisted therapy. Some of the known benefits are:

  •  Lowering high blood pressure
  • Improved survival rates for heart attack survivors
  •  Improved fine motor skills (by brushing, petting)
  • Physical rehabilitation (walking the dog, throwing a ball)
(see footnote)

Esther was intrigued, but she soon realized that a lot of people had concerns about starting such a program here. She would first have to prove that a therapy dog would prove no risk (such as infection or injury) to the patients.

She partnered with a resident physician to conduct a study measuring pain levels and infection before and after patients interacted with therapy dogs. The results were overwhelmingly positive, leading her one step closer to bringing the T.A.I.L.S. program to Children’s.

It took eight years of hard work, but finally Esther got an animal-assisted therapy program off the ground, and the program is now in its tenth year.

Esther tells me all this as we walk down the hall to the radiology department, where Savannah will work today.

Soon after Meredith and Savannah pick a spot to sit, a blond-haired girl takes an interest in the black dog with the big hair. “That is one puffy head!” the girl observes, patting Savannah. “It looks like my granny’s hair.”

Meredith replies “Oh, I bet your granny has more gray hair than that.”

“No,” the girl says,”she dyes it.”

More admirers gather around Savannah to pat her soft fur.

Meredith  tells one of the girls to look in the pocket on Savannah’s vest and pull out a card. Esther, who is sitting next to me, explains that all the therapy dogs have trading cards with a glamour shot on the front and a short bio on the back.  The cards serve as a good icebreaker for shy children who may not know what to say.

I look over and notice that Meredith has produced brushes and the girls are busily brushing the poodle’s fur. Even the parents are interested, asking Meredith questions about Savannah. It occurs to me that the parents waiting for their child’s name to be called may need this distraction as much as the kids do. Meredith shows the kids how she has to pull her dog’s ears back in a ponytail when she eats so her ears don’t get in her food. The children laugh.

I’m amazed at how nonchalantly Savannah relaxes on the floor, unperturbed by the crowd of children petting and brushing her while the photographer snaps pictures close to her face. This is the epitome of a laid-back dog.

Esther tells me there are nineteen dogs in the T.A.I.L.S program. The breeds range from Yorkie to Mutt and they come in all sizes. For bedside visits, children pick out the type of dog they want and Esther does her best to fulfill their requests. A Child Life Specialist is on hand to take notes and monitor every single visit made by a therapy dog whether it’s a group activity or a special bedside visit.

Forty-five minutes later, it’s time for me to say goodbye. I pat Savannah on her puffy head and thank her and Meredith for letting me tag along today. Then our gracious host Hilary Demillo (PR for ACH) walks us to the front entrance.

Could Your Pooch Be A Therapy Dog?

For readers who are interested in training their own dog for a therapy program, Esther has this advice:

1. Not every laid-back dog will make a good therapy dog. A dog who is relaxed at home may be nervous in a hospital, school or nursing home for many reasons, including:

  • sudden noises
  • children (who often make sudden movements)
  • wheelchairs
  • strange smells

2. Your potential therapy dog will need to go through basic obedience training first and then specialized training through Delta or Therapy Dogs International (ACH uses Delta-certified dogs only)

3. You and your dog will have to pass a test that evaluates you and your dog’s readiness to handle many different situations that may come up in a hospital setting.

4. Once you and your dog pass your evaluation, you must be committed to regular grooming for your dog. It is important that your canine companion look and smell his best on his visits. If you register with Delta, you will be required to re-test every few years.

To view more pictures from our visit, click here

“Pet therapy.” Judith Turner. The Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine. Ed. Laurie Fundukian. 3rd ed. Detroit: Gale, 2009. 4 vols.

One response »

  1. Hi Pam, this is Hamish from First of all this website is a great resource and it’s great to see all the useful information on it, well done. As far as tips on photography are concerned, I really like your photos. It’s a hard task to take photos of animals in the best of times. Everyone has their own style of photography and it changes depending on what you’re shooting for (telling a story, magazine/advertising, to sell or in my case, a bit of all). Your style is very journalistic and chronicles the text well. Just remember to be patient, get at the same level as your subjects and be willing to take lots and lots of photos to find the few you love. As with everything practice makes perfect 🙂

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