Canines that care: Meet the facility dogs at American Family Children's Hospital

Canines that care: Meet the facility dogs at American Family Children’s Hospital

MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- The hospital can be a stressful place, especially for kids, but some special employees at a children's hospital near the University of Wisconsin are working to make that experience a little easier.

Meet Kiko, Cola, and Archie.

These pretty pups have a special job at American Family Children's Hospital in Madison.

"Our facility dogs are an extension of the work that we do, like another tool in our toolbox," said Brianna Peterson, a child life specialist and the canine program coordinator.

The dogs work with the Child Life Specialist team to bring comfort and a furry, familiar face to patients.

"Everybody lights up when they see our facility dogs," Peterson said.

She handles Kiko, the hospital's first facility dog, who joined in 2021.

"A lot of the patients that we see are repeat patients, they look forward to coming to the hospital because they're so excited to see her," Peterson said.

The facility dogs are born and raised in Georgia through a program called Canine Assistants.

"About two weeks after they're born, they get a lot of sensory input around their paws, so they can tolerate a lot of touching, a lot of kids touching on them and pulling on them," Peterson said. "Then, they are immersed in the hospital setting right away."

Based on their skills and personality, each dog is assigned to a different specialty at work. Kiko and Brianna work mostly with patients undergoing procedures.

"Kiko is following me to patients who are having IVs placed, or a port accessed, or learning about an upcoming MRI, and she's providing support," Peterson said.

The second four-legged employee joined American Family Children's Hospital in 2022.

"Cola, we like to refer to as our gentle giant," said child life specialist, Katie Markowski.

She handles Cola, a three-year-old Golden Lab Poodle mix.

"Cola is very mellow, he moves very slowly, and his favorite thing to do is lay and cuddle with kids," Markowski explained.

They work on the Pediatric Palliative Care team.

"The kids and families that we see on our team often are in the hospital for a long time, and they are working through a medical journey that is lifelong," Markowski said. "Cola's consistency and work with the families is really helpful to support them emotionally."

Katie has been in the field for over a decade, and she believes Cola has changed her work for the better.

"It's not always what we say, but what we do," Markowski said. "Cola obviously can't speak, but the way that he works with kids and families, and the way that he loves them unconditionally, and helps support them without saying anything has really been beautiful to be a part of."

Hospital staff has seen an incredible reaction from patients since introducing Kiko and Cola.

This spring, they added a third pup to the pack: 18-month-old Archie.

"He's very calm when he's here at work, and he knows instinctually what to do, and when to give," said Archie's handler, child life specialist, Maggie Goldbach.

They provide support to patients receiving cancer treatments, like chemotherapy.

"Archie will come in, lay beside them, and he'll be a great distractor," Goldbach said.

Archie's specialty is helping children cope through long term treatment.

"There's a connection that is built there between animal and patients or animal and humans that you really can't put into words," Goldbach explained.

Altogether, Archie, Cola, and Kiko have worked with more than 2,000 patients at American Family Children's Hospital, enhancing the work of the Child Life team to help patients feel at home.

"If you would have asked me 10 years ago if I was going to have a dog with me at work every day, I would have laughed," Peterson said. "I did not expect this, but it's been the perfect fit."

They're the first hospital in Wisconsin to have this program, but Brianna expects more will join in soon.

"It's a hot commodity, everybody wants to have this tool in their toolbox because they can see the benefit that it offers their patients," she said.

"Until you actually do it and are a part of it, you don't really get to see how amazing animal therapy can be," Goldbach said.

The facility dogs are funded by community donors, and so far, the community is loving their impact.

"Our facility dogs are very popular, and they can only see so many kids every day, so we see the need for growth," Markowski said. "We hope to grow to more dogs and grow our program as a whole very soon."

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