A friendly dog with a wagging tail, who likes to have her ears scratched and is always willing to "sit" and "shake," is the perfect dose of medicine for many kids at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital.
The Child Life Department, which is dedicated to helping children and teen patients adjust to their hospital stay as well as educating them about their illnesses and treatments, now has a Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) dog as a member of its team.
Two-year-old Nilani — called Lani by the kids — is a crossbreed golden retriever and Labrador, who dons a blue vest to distinguish herself as a working dog. As a "facility" dog, she is expertly trained to work in a hospital setting with the overall goal of normalizing the hospital experience for patients, easing their stress and anxiety, and providing unconditional love and attention.
Jennifer Belke, Child Life playroom coordinator and Nilani's handler, brings Nilani to the children's hospital five days a week. Nilani spends part of her day in the playroom where patients rub her tummy, throw toys into the ball pit for her fetch, and even read to her. She also makes bedside visits, where Nilani rests her chin on patients' beds and waits for her ears to be stroked.
"A lot of kids have dogs at home," says Belke. "If they are here for a few weeks, having a dog just hanging around can provide comfort and normalize a child's experience."
It can also provide motivation. Nilani is comfortable doing such things as being led on a second leash — one being held by Belke and the other by a young patient who might just be motivated to get out of bed that morning if they can take Nilani for a walk in the courtyard.
A simple game of fetch — where the child sits on a therapy ball and throws a tennis ball for Nilani — can double as an exercise in improved balance and coordination.
Belke says there are dozens of activities that Child Life specialists engage the children in with Nilani to help with treatment and recovery, and to have some fun.
Nilani also provides a soothing presence. Stroking a dog's fur can give a sense of calm and even disarm fears and worries, says Belke.
Recently, a 3-year-old patient was having a hard time getting comfortable taking naps at the hospital. Nilani was brought in to lay down with the girl, and soon she was relaxed enough to fall asleep.
Children relate to dogs differently than they relate to adults, says Belke. Sometimes that means they can talk to the dog about their worries, or release their emotions in a way that might be hard to do with an adult.
Belke's blog offers regular updates and photographs about what Nilani is up to around the hospital, and includes Nilani-inspired patient artwork.
Read more about Child Life Services and what we offer young patients and their families.
Written by freelance writer Julie Beer in January 2011.
Photos by Eric Desch: Photography