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Canine Friend Helps Children on Road to Recovery

This column originally appeared in the April 21, 2008 issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.


After 30 years as a nurse, including four years in pediatric rehabilitation, Betty Miller says she never thought she would see her department go to the dogs. But three months ago, she says, she was happy to see herself proved wrong.

Higgins, a 2-year-old golden doodle – half golden retriever and half standard poodle – began his work in January as a facility therapy dog in the Pediatric Rehab Institute at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center.

Higgins lives with Miller full-time at her home in Oakville.  Two days a week, he comes to work with Miller and helps supplement therapy services for children who have suffered devastating injuries or illness.  During an eight-hour work shift, Higgins will spend roughly 90 minutes working directly with children who need help restoring range or motion, building muscle strength or regaining the ability to speak.

“Higgins helps with physical therapy, occupational therapy, even speech therapy,” Miller explains.  “A patient might not want to do something that hurts his or her shoulder, but with Higgins there they might throw a ball or play with him and they do the therapy without even realizing they are doing it.”

Miller recalls the great impact the therapy dog had on one child who had surgery on her legs and could raise her leg only about 70 degrees.  After just one session with Higgins, the child improved her mobility to 90 degrees without pain.

“Higgins is very much attuned to children,” Miller says.  “If a patient is hurting and crying, he will just cock his head and look into their eyes like, ‘How can I help you stop crying and feel better?’”

Higgins is provided through a local organization called C.H.A.M.P. Assistance Dogs, Inc. (C.H.A.M.P. stands for “Canine Helpers Allow More Possibilities.”), which regularly provides dogs for therapeutic visits at Cardinal Glennon and other area hospitals.  C.H.A.M.P. also covered the roughly $15,000 in costs to acquire, feed, train and provide veterinary care for Higgins to become part of the rehab therapy team at Cardinal Glennon.

Sherri Berry’s son, 10-year-old Logan, has spent about three weeks in Cardinal Glennon’s Rehabilitation Institute, regaining the ability to walk, swallow and tie his shoes.  The boy has a condition called Central Nervous System Vasculitis, which constricts the flow of blood to the brain and has caused him to have two strokes.

“We have a dog at home that we got just a week before Logan got sick the first time. He really hasn’t been able to spend much time with her yet,” Sherri Berry says. “Logan is very athletic and very into sports, so he enjoys playing basketball with Higgins and walking the dog.”

When he is off duty, Higgins is affectionate and playful.  On-duty, however, the large dog with black, curly hair is all business.  Higgins’ high level of training, as well as his naturally patient and forgiving personality, allow him to work well with children who sometimes pull and clutch at him.   Interestingly, Higgins’ two years of preparatory training was performed by inmates at a women’s prison in Vandalia, Mo. 

“The whole C.H.A.M.P. program is about empowerment.  The dogs empower the people they’re partnered with, and the training of the dogs empowers the women who are imprisoned, teaches them life skills and gives them back some of their humanity,” says Janet Cole, Executive Director of C.H.A.M.P. Assistance Dogs.  “These dogs empower everyone they come into contact with.”

Miller says she believes Higgins is the only hospital-based facility dog in the St. Louis region.

“It’s been fascinating to watch him work with the patients.  There was one little girl who had been hospitalized for a really long time and who was resisting therapy and refusing to eat.  But she would throw the ball for Higgins and even started eating graham crackers after seeing him eat.  It’s wonderful to see,” Miller says.  ; ; “He has been great for the parents, too.  A lot of families have children in the hospital for months and they don’t get a break, either.  During Higgins’ down time, parents pet him and they really seem to take a lot of comfort from him. It’s therapy for them, too.”

Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.


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