A children’s hospital in Orlando recently recruited candidates for a coveted recent position. After rounds of interviews, its pick for the job was Parks, a 2-year-old Labrador retriever with a golden coat and floppy ears — who boasts a powerful catalogue of greater than 40 commands.
Like many dogs, he knows methods to sit, stay and lift his paw on command. But what impressed hospital employees were Parks’s advanced skills, including pushing objects, turning light switches on and off along with his snout, pulling ropes to carry drawers and doors open, retrieving items and assisting with laundry by tugging the hamper to the washer.
He may play cards (using his mouth) as directed by his handler. He doesn’t know which cards to play on his own, but he has the dexterity to gingerly take a single playing card from someone’s hand and provides it to the opposite player. Parks also barks on command and offers tactile stimulation, like lying across a toddler’s body when told to achieve this.
Since joining the staff at Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in February, Parks has grow to be a vital member of the child-life team, which focuses on personalized support for pediatric patients.
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He comforts chronically ailing children by cuddling with them and likewise motivates them to take walks across the hospital.
Although Parks is the hospital’s first facility dog, service animals have grow to be popular at health care centers across the country, including at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C.
Kim Burbage — a child-life specialist on the hospital who works with Parks and cares for him outside of their day jobs — said dogs are invaluable in a hospital setting.
“He is certainly an enormous a part of our team,” she said.
Burbage, who has worked on the hospital for 15 years, said hiring a facility dog was something her department has wanted for years.
“We began developing the position and the policies surrounding it in the autumn of 2020,” she said.
The hospital applied to receive an animal from Canine Companions, a nonprofit that gives trained service dogs to individuals and organizations that give attention to health care, criminal justice or education.
The expertly expert animals — which cost about $50,000 to coach — are free to qualified applicants. Last 12 months, Canine Companions placed 373 service dogs, and since its founding in 1975, it has matched greater than 7,100 canines with worthy companions.
“We depend on the generosity of individual donors and foundations and special events,” explained Martha Johnson, a public relations and marketing coordinator at Canine Companions. In Parks’ case, the Arnold & Winnie Palmer Foundation contributed a grant to fund his placement on the hospital.
Canine Companions rears the service dogs in Northern California, and crossbreeds Labradors and golden retrievers “so we get the perfect of the perfect” by way of work ethic and temperament, Johnson said.
Once the puppies are 8 weeks old, they’re flown to volunteer puppy raisers, who teach them socialization skills and basic commands for just a little greater than a 12 months. The dogs then return to certainly one of six Canine Companions training centers for as much as nine months, after they are placed with a handler following a two-week matching program.
Only 55% of the dogs are ultimately placed, Johnson explained, “because our standards are so high.” Dogs that don’t make the cut as a service animal sometimes return to their puppy raisers, or they’re sent to other programs, resembling search-and-rescue organizations, where they’re higher suited.
Burbage — whose role on the hospital has recently expanded to incorporate dog handler responsibilities — visited the Orlando center to seek out the right pooch to affix the staff.
Her goal, she said, was to seek out a dog that might function a “therapeutic tool” to assist children and adolescents deal with difficult diagnoses. She searched for an animal that was equal parts playful and attentive, while still maintaining a way of calm when obligatory.
She connected with quite a few dogs at the middle, but “Parks was the perfect fit for her,” said Robyn Bush, a trainer at Canine Companions. “He stood out because the one which was working really flawlessly along with her.”
Bush teaches the dogs to hone advanced skills and sophisticated commands.
“There’s lots they learn,” said Bush, adding that “you need to use the commands in a wide range of ways.”
Burbage felt a detailed connection to Parks, saying she was amazed by his obedience and intellect, and likewise tickled by his “goofy side,” which she knew would bode well for patients in need of a pick-me-up.
“He is admittedly wonderful,” she said.
Since February, Parks — whose onboarding costs were paid by PetSmart Charities and the Orlando Health Foundation — has been working full time, Monday through Friday, on the hospital. He attends individual sessions with patients, at all times with Burbage.
Parks provides the children with kisses and cuddles, and has also learned methods to walk properly next to wheelchairs and other assistive devices. He has been trained to cater to the precise medical, physical and emotional needs of every child with whom he interacts.
As an example, many patients with autism or sensory integration disorder respond well to deep pressure. Using a command called “cover,” Parks is trained to sprawl out on top of a patient, serving as a weighted blanket.
There have been several instances by which Parks has helped hospital staff higher understand how a toddler is progressing medically, Burbage said. The dog’s presence can encourage a patient to open up and interact in ways they otherwise wouldn’t.
“They only get so excited to have him there,” Burbage said.
Although Parks already knows a powerful repertoire of tricks, he’s learning methods to use his snout to push a plastic bowling ball, which is an activity Burbage hopes he can play with the kids within the near future. He’s continually learning recent commands and constructing on those he has already mastered.
“When he’s working, he tends to be just a little bit more serious, having to give attention to all of the commands,” Burbage said. “I can’t wait to see where he’s at in a pair months.”
In his short time on the hospital, she added, he has already left an indelible impression on many patients and their families.
“I really like when he’s around,” said Makiyah, a patient on the hospital who for privacy reasons asked to make use of only her first name. “He’s a pleasant puppy.”
Facility dogs, normally, “have a really strong impact day after day, but in addition a lifelong impact on patients,” said Bush of Canine Companions, which offers ongoing support to the animals it trains. “It’s wonderful to see them touch so many lives.”