Canine companions cheer up young hospital patients.
Top: Alice appears on a picture card. Above: A therapy
dog helps brighten the day of a young patient.
may be a dog, but she understands how scary it is to be
little and in the hospital. When she was just a puppy she
developed a deadly virus and her owners deserted her in
an animal medical center, where she stayed until she was
adopted by her current owner, Manhattanite Brenda Johnson.
Together the two have found a special calling: Each Tuesday
Johnson and her German shepherd/husky mix help youngsters
feel better through Angel on a Leash, a therapy dog program
at Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital of New York,
part of the New York-Presbyterian Columbia University Medical
Center. Started last year by The Westminster Kennel Club,
the nation's oldest organization dedicated to the
sport of purebred dogs, the program provides much-needed
laughs, stories and furry snuggles for some of the city's
“Some of these kids are just exasperated by the environment
or what they're going through, and then they look
over and say, ‘My goodness, there's a dog in
my room!'” says Johnson. “They get that
twinkle in their eyes.”
David Frei, the longtime cohost of the annual telecast of
the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, said the club created
a commemorative dog show poster three years ago to raise
funds for animal organizations. Last year, it created its
own organization to provide trained therapy teams exclusively
for the children's hospital.
Program coordinator Greer G. Griffith only accepts teams
registered with a recognized therapy dog organization, and
she looks for those who are up to the challenge of working
in a hospital. The program welcomes retired champions and
mixed breeds alike because the dog's personality,
not pedigree, is what counts.
Different teams – which include the dog and the owner
– visit the hospital several days a week, often spending
time with 25 patients an evening. The teams establish relationships
with the patients. Owners bring dog biscuits along for the
children to feed the animals. Each team carries its own
picture cards to leave as a memento. Some of the children
who have lengthy stays collect them like baseball cards,
Several studies have shown that dogs have a positive effect
on young patients, reducing heart rates, teaching empathy
and taking the focus off pain. In future months, Griffith's
teams will complete the higher training needed to work in
the physical and occupational therapy departments, which
might lead to research opportunities at the hospital.
“Children will do things for dogs that they'd
fight with a therapist about doing,” Griffith says.
On Tuesday, February 14, the auction house Doyle New York
will host its 8th annual Dogs in Art Auction, offering four
centuries of canine art. The original art for the 2005 and
2006 Westminster posters featuring each year's reigning
champion will be on sale, with proceeds benefiting Angel
on a Leash. Two days before the auction, another Angel on
a Leash benefit, the popular Dogs in Art Benefit Brunch,
will offer art lovers a sneak peek at the auction pieces
– and a real doggie bag for their canine companions.
Johnson hopes the fundraiser will help expand the program.
“It's so gratifying to hear a parent say, ‘My
son hasn't smiled in three days – and he's
smiling now,” she says.
image one: Design and photograph by Greer G. Griffith, image
two: Amy Lee/Westminster KC