Telling the Hospital Story: Pups Provide Support, Encouragement at Hospitals

Sky the golden retriever at work, surrounded by Hershey employees

What’s better when you’re feeling scared than a visit from a canine friend? Many hospitals and health systems are embracing trained emotional support dogs to support staff, patients and their families during difficult times.

Salida is the furriest member of the staff at Children’s Hospital of Colorado in Colorado Springs. Salida, a two-year-old yellow Labrador, is the first full-time “MD” (medical dog) at the hospital. Salida and her handler roam the hospital’s pediatric units, including the ED, the pediatric ICU, the Center for Cancer and Blood disorders, among others. Her role is to relieve stress for patients and families, whether they’re there for a short visit or long-term care.

At Hershey Medical Center and Children’s Hospital, the Skye is the limit when it comes to caring. Skye is a golden retriever who works with the hospital’s chaplains to support the employees deal with stress and promote resilience. She visits clinical units and even attends meetings; her presence is intended to help the staff avoid burnout.

Though all the service dogs are integral in supporting care, some can add a few letters after their name. The University of Maryland, Baltimore, awarded Loki one of three “dogtorate” degree at the Paws to Honor UMB Service and Therapy Dog Awareness Day on June 13, 2023. Loki, a therapy dog who will follow owner Caroline Benzel as she continues her medical education at West Virginia University. The Rottweiler, who provides support to both patients and staff, donned a mortarboard and white coat for the ceremony (two service dogs, Kylo Red and Kiera, were also recognized for supporting their owners during their studies).

A new pup on the blog is Skipper, a black Labrador retriever. Just a puppy, Skipper is a guide dog in training who accompanies Chief Medical Officer Jennifer Bocker and Chief Operations Officer Kelly Malloy as they go about their roles at HCA Florida Sarasota Doctors Hospital. The pair take turns as they expose Skipper to the hospital environment. Eventually Skipper will become a seeing eye dog, but for now she’s getting used to medical equipment, the cacophony of sounds that echo through any hospital, and the hustle and bustle of the environment (she also, like any puppy, is being trained not to nip or put things in her mouth that shouldn’t be there). Though Bocker and Malloy are in charge, the entire staff pitches in to help with training and acclimating Skipper.

“She’s basically the hospital’s puppy at this point,” Bocker said.

Whether providing emotional support for a family member going through a tough time, getting belly rubs from a patient who misses their own dog, or learning the ropes to help someone with vision loss, service dogs have one thing in common: They are very good boys and girls.

Resources on the Role of Hospitals