There are a total of 13 dogs and one therapy bunny in the Pet Visitation Program. The animals help the 93,000 children and youth from across B.C. who visit the hospital each year. The animals are certified through St. John’s Ambulance and BC Pets and Friends. and attend areas including the Teck Acute Care Centre, Procedures, the Medical Day Unit, Renal Dialysis Unit, cardiology clinic and orthopedic clinic. Trading cards are handed out after the pets make visits to patients in the units.
Lisa Knight, a BC Children’s Hospital child life specialist, coordinates the Pet Visitation Program with Cynthia Vallance in BC Children’s Volunteer Resources. Knight says the animals can reduce stress for patients staying at the hospital and provide distraction from their health issues.
“It allows children to think about something other than their health,” says Knight. “It’s not easy to walk into an operating room and one child pretended to walk Fudge on the way there.”
Knight says many patients also miss their dogs while they’re away from home.
“It’s pretty calming to have a dog snuggle up to you and not want anything from you. The animals help kids going through a hard time.”
Patients love the trading cards. She says they’re often taped to the walls beside hospital beds. Some patients even sketch pictures of the dogs from the cards.
The therapy rabbit, Chloe, is especially popular. She visits the hospital once a month. Knight says all the animals bring people, who were once sitting solo, together as a group.
“It’s happiness and lots of smiles,” says Knight. “I have heard a patient say, ‘My cheeks hurt, I’m smiling so much.’”
Sadly, the program recently lost two therapy dogs, Molly and Cooper, who coincidentally passed away on the same day.
Cooper’s owner says he loved being a therapy dog and he was always on the lookout for “good patting people.” Since he first started in 2016, Cooper accumulated 240 hours of volunteering time in the Healthy Minds Centre, which houses children and youth mental health programs at BC Children’s.
Molly was a pioneer of the pet therapy program, accumulating 313 volunteer hours over six years.
“When Molly saw her scarf and hospital leash, she knew she was coming here. Her tail would go up and you could see a bounce in her step.”
The program is now on the lookout for more animals to join the team. The dogs are screened through St. John’s Ambulance to make sure they fully respond to their owners and can focus on their owners during chaotic situations.
The therapy dog program runs seven days a week. Therapy dog teams typically volunteer once a week for about an hour and a half. The program is hoping to expand to other areas of BC Children’s and BC Women’s hospitals. The dog visitation program at BC Children’s Hospital is funded through donor support.
Those interested in volunteering their pet can contact the liaison for St. John’s Ambulance, Laura Mills, at BCChildrensTDP@SJABCY.ca for more information on the screening process. BC Children’s care teams requesting therapy animal visits should go through Volunteer Resources at firstname.lastname@example.org.