How Isabela the Facility Dog Supports Patient Care

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Not all new employees are announced with great fanfare. Unless you are Isabela – Isa for short – Baystate Children’s Hospital’s first-ever facility dog, who goes to work every day to provide special animal-assisted therapy to pediatric patients, their families, and staff members.

What is a Facility Dog?

Although there are some similarities to volunteer therapy dogs, who are trained to provide more social visits for comfort and affection to people in a hospital setting for a few hours a week, facility dogs, as in Isabela’s case, go through considerably more in-depth education and work full-time alongside specially trained staff to support patients in meeting specific treatment goals.

“Dogs like Isabela are often described as better than any medicine. They just know when someone needs comfort, support, and love, and they give it unconditionally without judgement and expect nothing in return,” said Dr. Charlotte Boney, chair, Department of Pediatrics at Baystate.

Isabela’s Training

Isabela, a golden retriever, was born and raised at Canine Assistants in Milton, Georgia, a non-profit organization which teaches and provides service dogs for children and adults with physical disabilities or other special needs. In 2009, they partnered with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta to create a new and groundbreaking community service dog program which has now grown nationwide. To date, Canine Assistants have over 80 facility dogs placed around the country.

Already a star before arriving at Baystate Children’s Hospital, Isabela, now almost 19 months old, began her education at just seven weeks. She has completed over 1500 hours of individual instruction and 2,250 hours of group instruction and was the first of her litter to graduate at only 17 months old. Three certified child life specialists from Baystate Children’s Hospital, who provide psychosocial and emotional support to children and families within the hospital, traveled to Georgia for a weeklong training camp with Isabela and staff from Canine Assistants. After the training session, the child life specialists, who serve as the dog’s three handlers, flew along with Isabela to her new home where she is continuing to learn and grow alongside them in her new role as a part of the Child Life & Healing Arts team.

What Does a Facility Dog Do?

Isa and her handlers provide goal-oriented interventions such as preparation and support for medical procedures, assistance with physical and occupational therapy, help with meeting ambulation goals, socio-emotional support, and bereavement support. She will be working with pediatric patients across many areas of the Children's Hospital including inpatient units, the emergency department, radiology, and some outpatient areas. Isa also has some designated time to support hospital staff across the medical center. She has a calm and intuitive demeanor and has been an added support for staff during debriefs following difficult situations, or when rounding on units to help uplift spirits.

Do Facility Dogs Help Patients?

There is published evidence that facility dogs reduce stress, relieve pain, decrease anxiety and inertia, not to mention improving everyone’s - including patients, families and staff - mood and morale, noted Dr. Boney.

A 2021 study showed that animal-assisted interventions in hospitalized children on acute care units and pediatric intensive care units (PICU) lowered the stress hormone cortisol and increased mood and activity compared to the control group. Another study from 2022 surveyed 73 healthcare professionals who handled 46 facility dogs in 17 children’s hospitals and found that facility dogs decreased stress, improved well-being and job-related morale, and benefited patients by building rapport, providing a comforting presence and normalizing the hospital environment.

“Isabela is a wonderful new addition to the Baystate Children’s Hospital staff. As a dog lover and huge golden retriever enthusiast who has been blessed with many goldens over the years, these lovable dogs are known for their gentle nature, goofy sweet smiles, and deep loyalty to and affection for humans. They make great service dogs and we are lucky to have Isa as part of our team,” Dr. Boney said.

Visit Isabela on Instagram @Isabela_inspires.

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