Light Notes

For hospitalized children, this dog heals

This is a happy tale. How frowns can change to smiles and tears turn into laughter with one glimpse of a happy tail.

“Harli’s here!” the voices ring out as the golden etriever trots through the pediatrics corridor — very unexpected place to see a dog going for a stroll. But Harli is a special canine that not only brings ready snuggles, but therapy for healing children’s anxious hearts.

“Kids that are in a hospital know that it’s sometimes a scary place,” says registered nurse Diana Doolittle who is the human half of the Pet Partners team. “The goal is to get them through their hospital experience. When we come in it’s just for a visit.”

Their time together can reduce blood pressure and heart rate — even the perception of pain as the patient focuses on the pet.

From the moment Harli enters the room, it’s a cheerful change from the daily routine that accompanies a sick child. The young patients can brush its long hair or watch her tricks. Sometimes a doggie hug is all that’s needed during a few minutes stay.

But one time, there was hesitation about inviting Harli in for a visit.

“A 5-year-old had been severely mauled by a dog,” Diana recalls about being asked to bypass the little girl’s room. “But then the mom saw us on our rounds and invited us to come in,” remembering the ten minutes they took to ease into the child’s space.

It was another instance of the gentle dog making a difference.

“By the end of the visit, she was kissing Harli on the nose,” Diana reminisces about watching the child’s fear disappear, “and she named her little stuffed dog from the psychologist, ‘Harli.’”

Diana and her purebred dog have volunteered for six and a half years in the pet therapy program at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma near her home.

We go every Thursday,” she says of their weekly trip preceded by a shampoo and nail trim, “and we walk around different areas and hear ‘Please don’t leave until I get my Harli hug.’ It changes the environment for the staff, or for parents, giving them a break and seeing their child smile.”

For the 58-year-old grandmother, it’s an opportunity to share Harli’s story of recovery from knee surgery -- and more recently, cancer. In a book she created for just that purpose, Harli Goes to the Hospital, there are photos of the retriever checking in at the front desk, getting an identification bracelet, an X-ray and even having an I.V.

“The children see that Harli is all better now, that she runs, jumps, plays and is back to her normal activities,” Diana explains about the impact of Harli’s tale. “It gives them hope, too.”

Along with hope and hugs is a feeling of comfort that Diana wants Harli to bring to each child’s heart: “Here comes a dog that understands.”