Tufts dog is first-ever service dog in MA pediatric hospital

BOSTON — There has been a run on pets with the pandemic, and it’s not just families getting dogs. Hospitals are getting them, too.

“Bob” the service dog is the first-ever hospital service dog in a Massachusetts pediatric hospital. He came to Tufts in August. The story of how hard hospital staff worked to get him here during a pandemic shows just how much adults and children in hospitals need support systems during this difficult time.

Bob works five days a week at both Tufts Medical Center and Tufts Children’s Hospital. He’s a Tufts employee. His day usually starts at 8 a.m. with staff rounds (staff need the support just as much as patients, these days). Then he gets to work visiting patients. He sees as many as 20 patients a day.

Currently, Tufts Children’s Hospital has a strict COVID visitor policy in place. Children in the hospital are only allowed two visitors, and they must be the same visitors every time. So getting an extra visitor is a welcome surprise for patients.

Patient Kathleen Chhim is 14 years old and is being treated in the ICU. She says having Bob come to her room for visits has been calming.

“You don’t have to really worry about anything when you’re petting a dog,” said Chhim.

The Golden Doodle, who is more Golden than Doodle, came to Tufts in August of 2020 when he was just a puppy. He lives with the hospital’s Director of Volunteer Services, Anne Marie Sirois.

“He is the most popular employee at Tufts Medical Center and Tufts Children’s Hospital,” said Sirois.

It did take some work to get Bob here, though.

Tufts “Child Life” Director Andrea Colliton explained she and Sirois were able to go down to Georgia to get Bob from a trainer when the pandemic hit in March. Initially, traveling wasn’t an option. But after a few months of petitioning hospital executives, Tufts allowed the pair to get on a plane to go get Bob and bring him to his new home.

“We had to get special permission from hospital administration to sign off that this was something our whole organization could benefit from at this time,” explained Colliton.

Service dogs are slightly different than therapy dogs in that they’re not volunteers. As an actual full-time employee, Bob has a hospital badge and a salary of sorts - he’s paid in treats and love. The training is also more extensive for service dogs: Bob has logged more than 2,000 hours of training since he was just 8 weeks old.

The comfort and support Bob has provided to both Tufts patients and staff in the past 7 months has been invaluable.

“Having something to meet that social, emotional need was so needed at this time. Our staff are stressed; everyone coming into the hospital - no one’s had time off. And coming into the hospital is stressful to begin with, pandemic or not,” said Colliton.

There are scientific studies that have found puppies are good for our health. One such study shows puppies raise oxytocin levels -- the so-called “love hormone” -- that helps to offset depression and anxiety.