Dynamic therapy dogs: Paws at Play pups celebrate anniversary with expanded outreach to staff


In a year’s time, hospital therapy dogs Puggle and Huckleberry have reached what some might call celebrity status on the St. Jude campus.

The dogs, who helped launch the St. Jude Paws at Play Hospital Dog Program with their arrival in September 2019, have seen hundreds of patients, celebrated milestones and become the hospital’s most recognizable employees.

It’s been a year of bedside breakthroughs with patients, gentle nudges of encouragement before daunting procedures and moments of comfort for children with difficult diagnoses. The dynamic duo recently expanded their roles by visiting with St. Jude employees during these tough times. Their impact has been remarkable.

Therapy dogs help staff, too

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, many St. Jude employees began working from home. Along with their Child Life handlers, Puggle and Huckleberry conducted telehealth sessions with patients. The dogs adapted easily, finding ways to entertain and comfort virtually.

The dogs stopped by campus periodically to visit the hospital’s Incident Command Center in the spring. Weary clinicians and administrators welcomed their furry friends after long days of pandemic planning. A few minutes of companionship eased the tension and stress in the room.

It wasn’t long before Paws at Play partnered with Janet Sellers, program manager of the St. Jude Staff Resilience Center, to plan stops throughout the hospital. During the pandemic, Sellers has made rounds in the clinics, hallways and offices to talk with employees and offer breaks from the busy workday. The addition of the dogs has accentuated her efforts.

“I’ve seen the renewed energy that a visit from Puggle and Huckleberry has given our staff,” Sellers said. “Employees have laughed. They’ve smiled. They’ve shared about their own pets. The work that frontline providers do can be hard. It’s been nice to share a moment of levity with them as the dogs roll over, play with their toy, or make themselves comfortable by spreading out on the floor.”

The intuitive sense of therapy dogs

Throughout the past year, the dog’s handlers have noticed the pups’ sometimes intuitive sense with patients. They’re now seeing it with staff members. Puggle’s primary handler, Brittany Reed, recently visited a patient in the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit. As they were leaving, a staff member stopped to say hello. Puggle, who typically adopts a proud and playful stance, leaned into the employee and laid on the ground to receive her affection.

“It was almost as if Puggle was saying, ‘I’m here for you.’ The staff member sat with him and said, ‘This is exactly what I needed,’” Reed said. “Puggle is embracing staff right now. I think he recognizes they are doing really tough work.”

Huckleberry works in Diagnostic Imaging with his primary handler, Shandra Taylor. His secondary handler, Katie Greer, takes him to visit hematology patients in the hospital’s H Clinic. Puggle works mostly in the inpatient Solid Tumor and Neuro-Oncology units. Along with his backup handler, Ashley Carr, he visits patients in the Bone Marrow Transplant unit. This experience has allowed the dogs a chance to explore new areas of the hospital and make new friends with employees.

Just as Puggle works to ease his colleagues’ days, Huckleberry adapts to his surroundings in much the same manner.  He often seeks out those who need him the most. No matter where the dogs visit, they are greeted by delighted employees who have stories about their pets. The duo comforted a staff member one morning at the end of a long night shift. The clinician had lost her dog a few weeks earlier.

“We’ve visited with staff members after they had to tell family members difficult news or be there during end-of-life care with a patient,” Taylor said. “A moment with the dogs gives them what they need to carry on with their shifts and provides them a sense of comfort.”

Canine connection

The Paws at Play team say they think employee resilience efforts are here to stay due to the feedback and reactions from their colleagues. Whether they are visiting with patients, families or staff, it’s clear to see why Puggle’s and Huckleberry’s first year on campus has been so meaningful.

“I think the dogs have really helped foster a sense of connection with employees during a time when that is so challenging,” Taylor said. “You can’t hug your coworker or patient right now, but you can certainly hug Puggle or Huckleberry. This has helped fill that void and build that connection.”

About the Author

Mike O’Kelly
Mike O’Kelly is a member of the Communications Department at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.