Who has four legs, wears a black coat and works alongside medical staff? Huggie – the newest member of the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center team and first-ever facility dog at UC Davis Health. The two-year-old Labrador retriever supports children receiving treatments in the Pediatric Infusion Center.
Huggie works with his foster mom and child life specialist Jenny Belke Monday through Friday to normalize, motivate pediatric patients and reduce any fear, stress, anxiety or pain they may be feeling.
“Patients and families deserve tailored care,” said pediatric oncologist Marcio Malogolowkin. “Each child has a different need and I think Huggie is one more sign of our commitment to caring for patient’s individual needs.”
For 18 months before he could report for duty, Huggie lived with a volunteer “puppy raiser” for obedience training, socialization and basic care needs. He returned to Canine Companions for Independence for six months of intense professional training and mastered more than 40 commands before attending the organization’s “Team Training,” where he was matched with Belke and received his doggy diploma. Only one in four puppies will meet the criteria to become a facility dog, according to Canine Companions, which provides the dogs without charge.
Though he’s cute and cuddly, Huggie serves a therapeutic purpose for cancer patients and their families. The cancer center is no stranger to canines. UC Davis pediatric oncologist Anjali Pawar conducted a study five years ago which found that children who received regular visits from a therapy dog during care – as well as their parents – experienced a decrease in stress and anxiety.
Cindy Bey watched her 12-year-old son Alex light up when he first met Huggie recently during a weekly treatment. Alex was diagnosed with a brain stem tumor that temporarily paralyzed the right side of his body and made speaking and walking difficult. The two-and-a-half hour commute from Red Bluff each week can add to the trauma of cancer care.
“When we got here today Alex didn’t want to be here. He was depressed and started crying,” said Bey on Wednesday. “When Jenny asked if he wanted her to bring Huggie over, he stopped crying and had a big smile on his face.”
Huggie’s presence at the Cancer Center necessitated thoughtful planning by UC Davis Health leaders. Pediatric infectious disease specialist Jean Wiedeman collaborated with child life and creative arts therapy manager Diana Sundberg and developed a detailed protocol to ensure patient safety. The requirements for Huggie include supervision by a UC Davis Health representative at all times; written approval by parents/guardians prior to patient interaction; weekly baths; and his bed, leash and vest must be washed regularly and replaced every six months. He will also see his own doctors at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine regularly.
Sundberg, who manages the child life and creative arts therapy team, said she hopes to have three or four dogs placed at the health system to provide pediatric patient support.
“When you’re not feeling well, caring for something else can help take the focus off of your pain,” said Sundberg. “Children will have the ability to build relationships with the dogs, which can provide a sense of familiarity and comfort when they’re in the hospital.”
Although Huggie graduated from the Canine Companions program, his training is ongoing. Belke has short- and long-term goals for him; she wants him to provide comfort to patients when nurses are inserting catheters into the surgically implanted ports for chemotherapy treatment and eventually with lumbar punctures (spinal taps). For now, he’s happy to snuggle and isn’t shy about snoring – both of which bring his patients joy.
Visit the Child Life and Creative Arts Therapy Department page to learn more Huggie.