After a 30-year career with UPS, Chris Witschey knew she wanted to do some sort of volunteer work that involved children or dogs. Thanks to Akron Children’s Hospital’s Doggie Brigade Program, she found something that combined her love of both.
Witschey and her three dogs, Gracie, Francis and Handsome, are just one of the nearly 80 volunteer handler teams that devote time to visiting patients each week. Sponsored by Milk-Bone, the program has brought cold noses, pooch smooches and wagging tails to patients since 1992.
The hospital works with Pet Partners, a national non-profit organization that trains would-be volunteers and evaluates them and their pets for visiting animal programs in hospitals, nursing homes, veterans’ centers, and other settings. Children’s Hospital Volunteer Office Coordinator Whitney Romine says that the hospital seeks dogs with a certain temperament. “If you have to boil down what that temperament is, it’s that they seek out affection,” she adds.
While dogs with friendly dispositions are welcome, Romine adds that both ends of the leash have to meet certain standards. Volunteers must successfully complete an online training course through Pet Partners. Both master and pet must undergo behavioral screenings and the dogs must undergo an initial vet screening and annual screenings if accepted into the program.
All of the Doggie Brigade’s members are therapy dogs and most do in-room visits to patients. The remaining members, like Witschey and her dogs, help patients with physical therapy. Doggie Brigade teams must commit to at least 26 hospital visits per year. If the pictures of some of the brigade’s past members lining Children’s Hospital’s halls are any indication, there doesn’t appear to be a shortage of people and pooches willing to make the commitment.
One such committed team is Jon Torrens and his 8-year-old Goldendoodle, Macaroni. Torrens owns a Fairlawn-based wealth management firm and first became interested in the Doggie Brigade when his youngest son, Holden, needed surgery. Now into their second year with the program, Torrens and Macaroni spend a portion of their Friday afternoons visiting kids that are in Children’s Hospital’s general surgery, oncology and behavioral health units.
“He comes to work with me every day,” Torrens says. “It’s time for Macaroni and I to give back.”
Logan Brown, 14, was the recipient of a visit by Macaroni. In late March, the eighth grader needed emergency treatment for a bacterial infection that settled in his right hip. While awaiting additional treatment, Logan began to miss his cat, Luna, and his dog, Brave. A few minutes nuzzling in his bed with Macaroni appeared to take some of the edge off of Logan’s time in the hospital.
The day that Logan and Macaroni met each other was the same day that 7-year-old Keeley Schlabach completed her final day of physical therapy with Gracie, a three-legged Husky mix that Witschey adopted from a pet rescue. Schlabach underwent spinal surgery for cerebral palsy in January and successfully completed her hour-long daily therapy regimen with help from Gracie and Francis, Witschey’s Black Labrador Retriever. “Before the surgery, I used to go wibble-wobble, but now I’m walking straight,” Keeley explains.
Children’s Hospital Physical Therapist Sarah Brown says that the animals provide encouragement to kids, some of whom are reluctant to participate in therapy.