These therapy animals make a grand comeback to help children find joy and relaxation to boost their health.
young child in stroller wearing helmet petting a therapy pony
Credit: Courtesy of Ted Stevens, Akron Children's Hospital

After 400 days sheltering at home, Willie Nelson is on the road again. His audience? Dozens of young patients at Akron Children's Hospital in Ohio. He and his merry band prompt smiles, hugs, and stress relief wherever they go.

No, we're not talking about the Red-Headed Stranger, but Willie Nelson, an 11-year-old miniature pony, and a pack of loving therapy pups from the Doggie Brigade. For nearly 30 years, this volunteer organization of two- and four-legged cheermongers helped children heal. In all that time, the staff and patients at the hospital have welcomed more than 350 dogs (and one mini pony!) to each floor, delighted to encounter wags, snuffles, and licks! 

Although the Doggie Brigade hosted hundreds of virtual visits during the pandemic, simply nothing can compare to the wide-eyed wonder and joyful exchanges a sweet, fuzzy visitor provides a child recovering from a serious illness. So just imagine the anticipation when the hospital halls once again echoed with the pitter-patter of tiny paws (and hooves!) in mid-July.

Therapy pony comforting boy in a wheelchair
Clop, clop, clop, clop! Willie the therapy pony made his grand return to the hospital, sharing as many nuzzles and pats as he could.
| Credit: Courtesy of Ted Stevens, Akron Children's Hospital

Whitney Romine is the volunteer office coordinator and Doggie Brigade adviser. "On the day that we brought Willie Nelson back, I took him to the transitional care floor. We had arranged for the children to come up to their doors so Willie could safely visit as many kids as possible," she tells Daily Paws. "I looked around me and noticed the staff coming to visit, too. It was almost like I had turned around and the whole floor was full of people who came to see Willie." 

And not just Willie, but also Murphy, a standard Schnauzer and Tyrus, a soft-coated Wheaten terrier. The three compawdres have been in service together since 2018.

Studies in animal-assisted therapy reinforce how children in hospitals benefit from interaction with dogs, horses, cats, and other creatures great and small. These experiences reduce stress, anxiety, confusion, and perceived pain. Although they often appear brave to us, these kids let down their guard when a furry friend simply wants to be by them, offering hope, peace, and comfort with a few slobbery kisses. Even 10 minutes of this unconditional support allows children and their families to forget about illness and pain.

therapy dog comforting a pediatric toddler
Who's a good dog? That would be Murphy, age 8, a standard Schnauzer eager to meet this cute toddler. Looks like the feeling is mutual!
| Credit: Courtesy of Ted Stevens, Akron Children's Hospital

"When the Doggie Brigade came back, we had a lot of people sharing that they were so happy to see them again," Romine says. "At first, when people saw them, there was this kind of stunned disbelief. But then, they were all over the dogs, saying 'hi' and petting them!"

And it's not just the children who get a vital happiness boost. "Therapy dogs and similar types of animals have the ability to help people connect and feel safe. I often hear staff respond, 'Thank you, I really needed this' after a therapy animal visit," Romine says. "When the staff sees Willie or members of the Doggie Brigade, it's like a weight is lifted—you can truly feel them relax." And after all they've been through these many, many months, they deserve it!

The comeback of the Doggie Brigade, supported by Milk-Bone, is slowly ramping up. More appearances will be added to the tour schedule as conditions allow. And many well-deserving children will have the best front-row seats!

therapy dog for pediatric patients wearing blue bandana
Tyrus, age 7, a soft-coated Wheaton terrier, is pretty doggone excited to be back snuffling kids face-to-face!
| Credit: Courtesy of Ted Stevens, Akron Children's Hospital