Paws on the Floors: BMC’s Healing Pups

It is fair to say dogs put smiles on the faces of nearly everyone they meet. With a nudge of their nose or a wag of their tail, dogs have the ability to bring instant happiness to those around them.

In 2012, when the idea was proposed to have dogs on Boston Medical Center’s campus to provide comfort to patients, it was met with mixed feelings. With some reluctance, leadership piloted the program, allowing for two dogs to participate and visit patients. Little did everyone know, this small idea would blossom almost overnight. In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, the Healing Pups program found its footing when dogs were enlisted to help patients and families being transported to Boston Medical Center for urgent care. Dexter, one of the original pups, became an instrumental source of relief during a time of unimaginable pain and loss. It was in that moment the decision was made to actively grow the program into what it is today.

Currently, there are an astounding 20 dogs making up the program—a majority of which belong to BMC employees. Before being accepted into the program, each dog must pass either the Assistance Dog International test or the Therapy Dog International test, as well as a behavioral exam. Most importantly, dogs must also be comfortable with the sights, sounds and smells of the hospital and be able to calmly visit and interact with patients and their families. To those patients, the dogs act as a much needed diversion to hospital life. “[A dog serves as] something coming into the room that is not there to poke and prod. [They are] something coming into the room that allows people to forget for just a few minutes that they are actually in a hospital,” says Sheryl Katzanek, director of Patient Advocacy at BMC and co-founder of the Healing Pups program.

The program uses a “ruff-eral” system to assign requests, sending different dogs to various floors and departments, depending on the need. Katzanek, who often accompanies pups to see patients, understands firsthand what dogs can provide that often humans cannot. “The dogs don’t judge, they don’t care where you’ve been or what you do. The dogs are just a good conversation starter,” she says.

Though the Healing Pups program was initially launched to benefit patients, there was one outcome no one anticipated—the impact the dogs have on staff. “I have said a zillion times, patients and families like it, staff need it,” Katzanek stresses. Whether it’s to help staff after an unusually tough work week or to provide relief for someone dealing with a personal issue, the dogs are always happy to visit and spend some time with their human colleagues.

“We have been asked to go to critical incident debriefings after something traumatic has happened in the unit and we just come up with [the dogs], let them off their leash and staff can cry with them and snuggle with them,” says Katzanek.

For “ruffly” eight years, the Healing Pups program has continued to be a fan favorite among staff, patients and visitors alike. However, when the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) started affecting the community this past March, the program came to a screeching halt. “The concern was not about the fear of transmission, but about the lack of social distancing when the dogs were present. The dogs bring crowds,” says Katzanek. The decision prompted the dogs to “work from home” much to the disappointment of staff. As the cases surged and frontline employees became understandably more anxious and stressed, it was apparent how missed the four-legged friends really were. “We were getting constant calls and finally someone reached out to Nancy Gaden [BMC’s chief nursing officer] and said, ‘Please, we need to see the dogs,’” Katzanek recalls.

To mitigate this, Katzanek worked to implement posters and digital signage around the hospital, featuring the pups sending well wishes and messages of support to frontline staff working tirelessly to care for the influx of COVID-19 patients. At one point during this stretch of time, Mike Hurley, clinical engineer at BMC and co-founder of the Healing Pups, was granted permission to visit with his dog Mason during a shift change. A staff member who had a particularly difficult day was asked, “What is the one thing that would make you feel better right now?” She simply responded that she “wanted to see one of the dogs.” Mike took Mason to see her and instantly, her mood improved. “[The dogs] are just such a stress relief,” says Katzanek.

Now, after months of working remotely, the dogs are slowly being integrated back into the hospital, specifically in non-COVID areas. And while staff and patients are thrilled, it seems nobody is more prepared or excited to get back to work than the pups. “Rylie was just wiggling, wiggling, wiggling. It was so sweet. You could see how happy she was to be back in action,” says Katzanek of her dog Rylie’s triumphant return to BMC’s campus. With new requests to add more dogs all the time, Katzanek says she is never entirely sure what the future of the program will look like, but knows one thing is certain: “It’s been a labor of love, and the day I walk out of here, I will know that [this program] is my gift to BMC.”