Le Bonheur Child Life Specialist Anne Elizabeth Hattier, CCLS, envisioned one day bringing therapy dogs into Le Bonheur Children’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). In July of 2022, her vision came to fruition.

“We want to be intentional about supporting our youngest patients,” said Hattier. “While admitted, our patients don’t leave the NICU, so we bring the normalizing experiences to them, enriching the hospital environment to maximize developmental stimulation and hopefully minimize developmental delays or gaps.”

Only three hospitals across the country, including Le Bonheur, have programs that bring therapy dogs into the NICU. After just six weeks of the program, Hattier, parents and neonatologists in the unit have seen improvements in the lives of patients and families who experience the therapy dog program.

One of the biggest obstacles to the patients’ developmental progress in the NICU is the environment. Whether it’s the family encountering unfamiliar and complicated medical technology or a child’s limited access to typical daily experiences, families with children in the ICU are in need of as much support as the hospital can offer.

“Development is part of medical care,” said Le Bonheur Neonatologist Jennifer Davidson, DO. “Therapy dogs in the NICU are another way for us to think outside of the box for how to improve a child’s development and give parents a new way to interact with their children.”

Before the pandemic, therapy dogs visited the lobby of the NICU where families and staff members were afforded a break and boost in morale. Hattier says that even petting a dog can lower blood pressure and that this initial step served as emotional support and relief for families watching their children go through the unthinkable.

When toddlers became more commonplace in the NICU, opinion began to shift to allow dogs to work directly with the NICU patients. It made sense to fully incorporate therapy dogs into the programs available and provide new developmental growth opportunities.

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In 2022, Hattier’s proposal for therapy dogs in the NICU was finally accepted after working with NICU leadership, infection prevention and quality improvement to outline the developmental benefits of the program and establish the appropriate precautions for patient safety and health.

To be eligible to meet with a therapy dog, NICU patients must:

The ICU therapy dogs visit the NICU first before any other units to limit infection risk. Patients receiving the service enjoy 10 to 20 minutes of focused time with the therapy dog in a setting designed to maximize stimulation in order to increase developmental skills. They feel new textures as they pet the therapy dog’s fur, learn balance as they stand and lean on the therapy dog and engage in new social experiences with others.

“With our ICU therapy dogs, we see developmental benefits to patients’ social, emotional, cognitive and physical growth.” said Hattier. “I’ve watched caregivers become more confident engaging with their child and their medical equipment, as well as caregivers feeling excited about such a normalizing experience where they can bond, learn and grow together.”

Davidson echoes the positive effects of these therapy dog sessions. Not only do the sessions allow for the children to get crucial developmental experience and exposure, they also give parents the opportunity to be present and familiarize themselves with the medical equipment their children may be utilizing.

“Parents now have another way to interact with their children and see their child in an environment that’s not just medically focused,” said Davidson. “And this program can directly impact patient outcomes — we know that the more parents are with their kids in the NICU, the better the long-term outcomes.”

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Hattier’s ultimate goal is for the NICU to have its own therapy dogs so more patients can benefit from access. She continues collaboration with the therapy dog handler, occupational therapists, physical therapists and music therapists to make this program a success and maximize the developmental benefits for each individual patient’s needs.

“It’s exciting to watch a patient warm up to the therapy dogs, gain emotional trust, explore normal experiences in a medical environment and increase their comfort level and excitement week to week with the therapy dogs,” said Hattier. “During the session, I get to watch our little friends grow developmentally in the hope of setting them up for success for the transition home with their families and, just for a little bit, it’s not about being in the hospital. It’s about playing together.”

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