Therapy Dogs Lead To Justice, Healing For Child Abuse Survivors

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DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – As he walks the 4th floor of Cook Children’s Medical Center, therapy dog Ralph receives a rock star’s reception.

Staff members, patients and their families all stop to spend time with the 4-year-old Golden Retriever.

Early Wednesday morning, his handler Kizzy Marco receives a request. Luke, a 4-year-old neuroblastoma patient wants to play. Minutes later, Ralph is jumping up on Luke’s hospital bed and relaxing next to his pal. Luke sneaks Ralph some of the Fruit Loops he’s snacking on.

The gentle giant, with the soulful eyes offers comfort and comedic relief during what can be a very stressful time for families.

“As much as we make it feel beautiful here, and it doesn’t feel so much like a hospital here, it’s still a hospital. It’s something that’s not familiar and threatening to kids inherently. To be able to offer something that’s smiling, that’s warm and non-judgmental is huge to them,” Marco says.

She is also the coordinator of the medical center’s dog therapy program.

Together the duo dazzles little patients with Ralph’s bevy of tricks.

Ralph is bilingual. To the delight of Spanish speaking families, he understands commands like “besito,” which means kiss.

He helps kids get through blood work by showing them how to look away from the needle.

A determined Ralph turns his head away from his own “arm”, even as a small mountain of treats accumulates on his paw.

He has even comforted kids at the end of their lives.

“He’s gone there and he’s gotten very gently on the edge of their bed and put his paw on their hand,” says Marco.

But therapy dogs are more than cute. Research shows spending time with them helps lower patient’s anxiety and stress; reducing the stress hormone cortisol.

“It increases those hormones that have to do with bonding and feeling good,” says Dr. Jamye Coffman, medical director of Cook Children’s child abuse program.

Their therapeutic power lies in their ability to help humans relax.

“We do see kids that don’t want to talk about what happened,” she explains.

Therapy dog, Kitty works alongside the Child Advocacy Resources and Evaluation team. Here presence helps children open up about tough topics like sexual or physical abuse.

“It just really reduces the tension they’re feeling, makes them feel more comfortable about talking, which then makes them more cooperative for the physical assessment,” says Dr. Coffman.

The interviews are crucial to getting children the right medical treatment and support.

“We want the child to know that we care about them, we believe them, and that we will do anything we can within our power to protect them,” she says.

Whether they’re offering comfort or comedic relief, a dog’s love is a universal language.

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