Written by : Transcript – Healing Paws With Heather Stohr 

Transcript – Healing Paws With Heather Stohr

Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Healing Paws With Heather Stohr



[0:00:07] PF: Welcome to Happiness Unleashed with your host, Brittany Derrenbacher, presented by Live Happy. Plenty of research shows that pets can help us heal, and now even hospitals are warming up to the idea. I’m Paula Felps, and this week I’m joining Brittany as she sits down with Heather Stohr, a certified child life specialist at Norton Children’s in Louisville, Kentucky. Heather manages the facility dog program at Norton Healthcare, which allows animals to play a very important role in the healing process for patients, families, and their caregivers. Join us as we learn how they are changing lives one hospital bed at a time.


[0:00:45] BD: Tell us what a facility dog program is?

[0:00:49] HS: Sure, yeah. Our facility dog program launched in 2017. We have 12 full-time working dogs, and our dogs are trained to help really just support our patients, and our families, and our staff as well in the hospital setting. They just provide that amazing love and laughter like humans cannot, so they asked our leadership team about doing something like that, and they were sure like, “Sure. This sounds great.” So, I did some research and talked to some other hospitals that had programs in place. Yeah, so about a year later, we were up and running.

[0:01:30] BD: You’re in Louisville, Kentucky. Tell everyone what the name of the program is, because it’s so cute.

[0:01:35] HS: Yes. Our program is Heel, Dog, Heal. So, H-E-E-L, Dog, H-E-A-L. Yes, our marketing team did a great job of coming up with a name for our program, and I love it very much.

[0:01:48] BD: Who are the patients? Who are the patients that the facility dogs are visiting?

[0:01:53] HS: What’s really unique about our program is we have full-time facility dogs that work in our pediatric areas. Then also dogs that work in our adult areas. I really love that about our program. You’ll find that many children’s hospitals have facility dog programs, but Norton Healthcare decided that we needed them for children and adults, which I totally agree with. They, in pediatrics, they are on our med surge unit. They are in our pediatric intensive care unit, in our cardiac intensive care unit. We have a facility dog that works on our oncology unit, and then in the outpatient oncology space as well. Then in the adult areas, they just round on the different units, and physicians and nursing staff can put in consults for our dogs if there’s a specific need for a patient or a family and have a facility dog visit.

[0:02:45] PF: I would love to hear what a facility dog does, like what’s a day in their life, and how do they respond to the patients? I would just love to hear what they do.

[0:02:55] HS: Yeah. It looks different in the different settings, obviously. For a lot of our patients, it’s about getting them up and moving after surgery, so it’s much more fun to walk a dog around the unit instead of walking on a walker or having the physical therapist help you. That’s true with our adult patients as well, and really in pediatrics, we’re focusing on that, but we help our adults too, because they’re nervous about getting up. They might have sutures, or they’re scared that it’s going to be painful and hurt. They do a lot.

We do a lot of co-treating with physical therapy, as well as occupational therapy, so it might be something like they need to get some movement in their arms so they can pet the facility dog, they can throw a ball, and the dog will go get the ball and bring it back. It’s getting them up. The emulation part of it is a big deal. For our younger patients, a lot of them don’t want to take their medication, or taking medicine is hard or it tastes yucky.

Our facility dogs can take medicine from a syringe or a medicine cup, so we model that with our patients using pretend medicine. It’s just water, but we show them, and nine times out of ten, they’re willing to try it if the dog can do it, and kind of the same with when we need them to get their hospital down on, to go back to the OR. We can dress the dogs up in hospital gowns, it makes it just a little bit less scary, a little more normalizing.

[0:04:19] BD: How do you see the healing process shift, like emotionally, especially for kids, once dogs enter the room? It’s truly amazing. It’s almost immediate. When we walk in the room, if I’m by myself, as supposed to when I have my facility dog, when the dog is there, it’s almost an immediate, either calming reaction or excitement. The other day, Juno and I were in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, and she was on the bed with a patient, and then the doctor walked in and said, “Wow, I haven’t seen you smile this much, and the inflection in your voice just exudes happiness.” She’s like, “Well, dah, I mean, there’s a dog in my bed.” They just have this amazing way of connecting with people that I myself as a human do not. I don’t know if it’s, there’s no judgment there, they don’t ask for anything. It’s pretty amazing that I get to be a part of that every day, all day long. Pretty cool.

[0:05:20] PF: I think that is such an amazing way to approach healing, because we know the emotions that you get from being with animals, and how much that releases. How do you train these dogs? What does it take for a dog to become a facility dog? Because I look at mine and I know Brittany will agree, because she knows my dog. There’s no way a hospital would ever let them in.

[0:05:44] HS: Yeah. Our dogs are trained through a wonderful local organization called Paws with Purpose. They breed and train their dogs for facility dog and assistance dog work. Not all the dogs make the cut, but they start training them when they’re very young at like eight weeks old. The training process is about two years. As the dog gets a little bit older and further along in the training process, they are deciding like, do we think that this one would be better as an assistance dog or service dog, or can this one handle more people touching them and working in a facility where that’s a little bit different than being task trained.

It’s really interesting. They train them out at the women’s prison. The Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women. They have inmate handlers there that train the dogs, and they are amazing. They do the bulk of the training for these pups, but on the weekends, each pup in training has a weekend handler that picks them up. The job of the weekend handler is to help socialize them, take them to the mall, take them to the grocery store, and just get them out and about and exposed to things that they wouldn’t see in the prison setting.

[0:06:51] BD: Right. that’s healing for those women too.

[0:06:53] HS: Absolutely. When I got my dog, I was able to meet with her handler at the prison. Our dogs actually continue to go back there. They do their baths and check-ins. So, the handlers there get to hear stories about the great work that their dogs are doing out in the community, like I said, they really do the bulk of the training and are amazing. The things that they teach these dogs, not only just basic cues, but also like really fun and creative tricks, I guess you would call it. It’s a really neat program.

[0:07:27] PF: When you tell us that, it amazes me, because this one dog, look at how many lives this one dog changes from the time it’s a puppy. I mean, it’s changing the woman in prison who is training it. It’s the weekend handler. It’s making an impact. It changes your life to have this dog in your presence and every patient. I think that is a phenomenal touch that just one dog has throughout its lifespan.

[0:07:53] HS: So true. It’s so true. I had the pleasure of being a puppy trainer for Paws with Purpose, and a pup that I had actually got placed at Norton Children’s Autism Center. I do still get to see him, but he was with me for several years. It was tough when I knew it was placement time for him, but also this just feeling of joy and excitement that the amount of people and children that he and his new handler are helping, and it’s been amazing. I’m lucky enough that I get to see it.

[0:08:25] BD: My work used to be in adoptions. I would work with so many different families to have dogs be adopted. The question always that I would get from people interested and being a foster home is like, how do you give the animal up? How do you let that animal go to someone else? How was that for you, like your first experience with that?

[0:08:48] HS: It was mixed feelings for sure, because this dog, I had him a little bit longer, because I had him through COVID, the pandemic. Things stopped for a while, so the dogs through the pandemic had a little bit longer period of training time. I got to keep him a little bit longer and have him more regularly at my home, but when it was time, like I said, I had some mixed feelings. There was some definitely happy tears, and then really, I was excited that he was going to stay in our program. So, he’s part of the Heel, Dog Heal Program, and I get to see him when we all get together. That is really great. He and his new mom, his new handler are doing such amazing work. It just, it brings me so much joy. It really fills the heart.

[0:09:34] BD: Speaking of joy, can you tell the listeners about who is with you today?

[0:09:39] HS: Yes. I have my eight-year-old golden retriever, Juno. She is a white, fluffy ball of fur, smiles everywhere she goes. Well, typically she’s holding a stuffed animal in her mouth. She loves to carry her stuffies, especially if it’s a lamb chop. So, we get to walk through the hospital halls and put smiles on people’s faces that don’t even pet or touch her. It’s pretty amazing if you walk through the hospital with me to see how people react when they see her.

[0:10:10] BD: Her Instagram handle is @juno_bringsjoy?

[0:10:13] HS: That’s right. Yes, yes. That she does. She brings so much joy to my life and my family, but also just the people that we get to interact with and serve every day at the hospital. We’re here at the hospital, when people are here, it’s a scary time for them. Maybe they don’t know what’s going on. Maybe they’re waiting for a new diagnosis, but maybe their family members are in a lot of pain or the doctors are trying to figure out what’s wrong. We get to be a little bit of light in that day and try to make their day just a little bit better. Yeah, that’s why we get to have the facility dogs in the hospital. They reduce that stress and anxiety of being in this hospital setting.

There’s been research that shows it reduces blood pressure and heart rate. All those things, that’s when I was asking my leadership team if I could look more into it. Those were some of the things that I came back with of the evidence base and how it could help our patients and families. Really, the focus was on our patients when we first started the program, but when the pandemic hit, the dogs had to go home. We just didn’t know what that was going to look like. So, they were out of work for about six weeks. Then I got a phone call saying they could come back, but the focus was, they could only see staff.

What we learned through that, not that the dogs didn’t really see the staff before with the focus only being on staff when we were able to come back in 2020, was really we found, happier employees made for happier patients. If that makes sense. That trickles down. So, we’ve continued that and rounding on our staff, going to staff meetings. If we get an ask, if they’ve had a rough day on a particular unit, and we try our best to make rounds there just to check in and say hello.

[0:11:57] PF: They are such well-rounded workers. I mean, they do so much for everybody that they come in contact with. I wondered, I’m glad you brought up the way that you were able to find the research and bring it up to your team, because it used to be they wouldn’t have dreamed of letting an animal near a hospital. Is there any pushback still on things like that or do people realize the benefits, there’s not a risk, but there are benefits? What’s the –

[0:12:23] HS: Yeah. I would say in the beginning, there was definitely some pushback. I don’t even know if I call it pushback, but it was more about we wanted to make sure that we were going to keep our patients safe from an infection prevention standpoint. So, had no hospital acquired infections that have been traced back to any of our dogs. The program has been going since 2017, so I’m happy to say that. We put some parameters in place, people use hand hygiene before and after petting our dogs.

If the dog is going to get up in the bed with a patient, we put a flat barrier sheet down and then the dog gets on the on the sheet. Then when the dog gets off, we take the sheet off of the bed. Our dogs are, well Juno gets a bath every week. Most of them go. It’s about every seven to 10 days. Then we groom them every day when they come in from being outside, we’re wiping their paws. They are in amazing shape, that is for sure. Both inside and out. What they eat, they are on a very strict diet. We want to keep them in good shape, so they can work longer. They probably eat healthier than I do in all honesty.

[0:13:28] BD: Yeah. All our dogs do.

[0:13:30] HS: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly.

[0:13:33] BD: Yeah. Heather, you’re a certified child life specialist. I feel like you can uniquely answer this question. This month is International Day of Happiness. Also, the month of March on the Jewish calendar is the month of joy. How do the dogs in your program bring happiness and joy to children?

[0:13:53] HS: Yeah. That’s a great question. I think what it comes down to is just their unconditional love, like I said before, there’s no judgment. There’s the kind of like, that trust and safety and it’s normal. It’s a normalizing experience. Many children and families have pets at home. When they’re in the hospital, they’re missing their pet. It gives them that sense of love and connection when they’re in the hospital. It’s also really amazing when we have children that aren’t being open or wanting to talk about what is going on, or happening, or how they’re feeling, whether that’s they’re having pain, but they don’t want to disclose that or something traumatic has happened.

Truly amazing. Just to walk in as you start petting that dog, they just start talking. We’re not asking questions, but they just have this sense of just, like this is a safe environment. The dogs also do a great job of just giving our patients and families an alternate focus. When you talk to our patients, most of them will say there’s been a reduction in pain or anxiety after seeing the facility dog.

Our dogs are requested for certain things, because they have helped a certain patient in the past. So, we try to make that happen as well. They also, can be really goofy in times and make you laugh. Sometimes in the hospital, it’s hard to laugh, right? Because you’re so worried and your hurting, nervous about something, they have a great way of making us laugh, writing that humor.

[0:15:26] BD: Yeah. That’s a lot of duality, right? Because you have a lot of heavy, tough, serious, painful things going on. Then you have these dogs that just come in and they will just ground you in the present moment with their joy and goofiness. I mean, they don’t care. They’re just going to be them.

[0:15:45] HS: They don’t. My work is a child life specialist. We work with families that are grieving or in a bereavement situation. So, we do utilize our dogs for those types of situations and really to see my dog work the room and go to the people that need her most is pretty amazing as well. We had worked with a particular family who, Juno and I had seen this woman for about six or seven weeks and she passed away. The family asked that we come up to the room.

Juno went to the very people that needed her. I just let her off leash. It was really an amazing experience for me just to see her. She just knew what to do. I didn’t give her a cue. I didn’t ask her to go see a certain person or anything. I’ll never forget. There’s many experiences like that, but this one just really sticks out, because we had visited the family for many weeks and gotten to know them pretty closely.

[0:16:46] BD: Dogs are so intuitive. I mean, animals in general are so intuitive, but that’s beautiful.

[0:16:51] HS: For sure.

[0:16:52] PF: How do you know what to do? Because the dog is trained. How is a handler trained? What kind of program do they go through?

[0:16:59] HS: Yeah. Our handlers work with Paws with Purpose, will teach us everything we need to know about being a handler, so we do about 30 hours of book work with them. Then we start some hands-on training with different dogs. You don’t get to pick the dog that is going to be your dog. They have a matching system. They do a great job of looking at the work that the dog’s going to be doing, and then what setting the dog will be in. But also, it’s your home. What is it like at your home? Do you have a very active home? Do you have young children? Do you have older children? So, you’re working with different dogs, just learning the mechanics.

Our handlers make it look really easy, but there’s a certain foot you step off with when you’re getting ready to go and telling the animal let’s go. If you step off with the other foot, they won’t go. It’s like learning all of those things. Paw with Purpose does a great job. They also come into our hospital to help the handler once they’re matched with their dog. Then we do follow ups. There’s weekly trainings on the weekends that we go to. Then they do a 30, 60, 90 day check in, and then yearly after that to make sure that we’re keeping up with the dog skills. We’re practicing and making sure they’re in tip top shape.

[0:18:11] BD: I have a different kind of question, because Paula and I have these smooshy face, brachycephalic breeds that, it’s so hard to train. Just very unique, right? We love them. Is there a certain breed that is better equipped and easier to train and maybe a little bit more malleable to enter into these scenarios?

[0:18:34] PF: Boston Terriers need not apply.

[0:18:39] HS: Well, that’s a great question. I think when you look at facility dog programs across the US, most of what you’ll find are golden retrievers and Labrador Retrievers or a cross of the two, maybe. I do know some programs have like doodle mix, doodle crosses with a lab or a golden, but yeah, they’re mainly, ours are all Labrador’s golden retrievers or crosses of the two. Yeah.

[0:19:01] PF: I’m pretty interested to know what made you want to do this? How did you get involved? Because if whether it started as a passing interest, it’s now become central to you. How did you find out about it, what made you interested in it? How did it all evolve for you?

[0:19:18] HS: Well, my entire life, I’ve had dogs and just throughout things personally in my own life have truly experienced the healing power of the animal. Then I had heard about in 2016, I’d heard about a couple other hospitals that were starting programs. We have a pet therapy program where people can bring their pet dog into our hospital for about an hour a week and visit with patients, but we saw a need to have the dogs here for longer periods of time.

When I heard about other children’s hospitals doing this, that’s when I had approached my leadership team and just to see if they’d be interested, if I could even explore it and they were totally on board and amazing. I went to a conference actually, and gathered all the info and brought that back to the team. Then I started just gathering a team of people and finding champions within our hospital that felt the same way or felt that it would be beneficial for our patients and families. That’s just how we started.

[0:20:20] BD: What have the dogs that you’ve worked with and in your career taught you about life, and living, and healing, and community, and love?

[0:20:32] HS: Wow, that’s a great question. I think I would say for that one is just to, I guess, live life to the fullest, be present in the moment, and don’t be afraid to be a little bit silly or funny at times. I love the goofiness of our dogs and really just to, I guess, share the love and connection that we have as humans. Dogs can do that so easily. I think sometimes as humans, we step back and don’t want to say things, but the dogs have such a great way of doing that. So, I think it’s important to learn from them. Yeah.

[0:21:08] BD: There’s a big event coming up in October. Tell us – the facility dog summit.

[0:21:13] HS: Yes. I am so excited. Our hospital was chosen to host the next facility dog summit. It will be October 14th and 15th at the Muhammad Ali Center here in Louisville, Kentucky. Facility dog handlers throughout the United States will come and we will talk all things facility dog. We’re currently working on our schedule now. People are submitting abstracts. Some of that will involve research that has been done over the past couple of years. We’ll talk about all kinds of different things. I guess sometimes maybe the struggles of being a handler and what that looks like. Interventions that handlers are doing with their dogs in the hospital setting. Just sharing knowledge and with everybody throughout the facility dog community.

[0:21:57] BD: We always like to end the show sharing a story of an animal that is doing meaningful, memorable, magical work in the community. Is there an animal that you work with or have worked within the past that stands out to you?

[0:22:12] HS: I manage the program at the hospital. I get to hear all the amazing stories of impact. I’m always asking for those from my handlers. I don’t know if I could pick just one, honestly, because they each have done some truly amazing work and they do it day in and day out. It’s hard to pick one. I don’t know. I feel a little selfish if I pick my own dog, right?

[0:22:40] BD: [Inaudible 0:22:40]. It’s allowed.

[0:22:41] HS: Yeah, exactly. I obviously think she does amazing work, but I know it’s happening throughout the hospital walls here at Norton Healthcare. We’re very blessed to have this program.

[0:22:55] BD: Well, Heather, thank you so much. This program and what you’re doing and all the animals in the community, it’s a gift. It’s really beautiful, meaningful work that you all are doing. Thank you so much for coming on the show, and for sharing Juno, and the program, and the kids. Thank you.

[0:23:11] HS: You are welcome.


[0:23:13] PF: That was Brittany Derrenbacher, talking with Heather Stohr. If you’d like to learn more about the facility dog program about Paws with Purpose or follow Juno, the therapy dog on social media, just visit our website @livehappy.com. Of course, Brittany will be back here next month to talk more about how pets bring us joy, help us heal and can be some of our greatest teachers. Until then, for everyone at Live Happy, this is Paula Felps reminding you to make every day a happy one.


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