Jesse Hagerman says magical things happen when therapy dogs visit Shriners Hospital for Children in Springfield and interact with the patients.
“They light up; it helps them forget why they are here,” said the hospital’s child life supervisor.
“These dogs can evoke wonderful responses, and I have seen children really open up around them. “It decreases the anxiety and stress of being hospitalized and enhances self-esteem because the dogs offer non-judgmental, non-threatening attention and give the children unconditional love.”
The canines and trainers that visit the hospital come from K-9 for Kids Pediatric Therapy Unit, a volunteer, nonprofit organization that serves children in Western Mass. and Connecticut. It was established by president/director Melissa Kielbasa of Sandy Hills Farms in Westfield in 1999 at the request of the Melha Shrine Unit, and has expanded to serve other pediatric medical facilities, camp and library programs, school systems, and a youth detention facility.
“The visits are designed to offer emotional support,” Kielbasa said, adding that some handler/dog teams also work with adults in nursing homes and hospitals.
The K-9 program includes dogs who like to cuddle as well as a number who have been trained to do unusual tricks and entertain children.
“One dog will hide on command, and the kids think it’s hysterical,” Kielbasa said. Another rolls over on her back and drinks out of a baby bottle which it holds with its front paws.
“My dog sneezes on cue. We have dogs that dance, and we have a talking pug that does a yodel that sounds like ‘I love you.’