Visiting hours lift the spirits of all hospitalised patients, and for the young inpatients at the Children’s Ark in University Hospital Limerick (UHL), there is one very special weekly visitor who gladdens the hearts of children and staff alike.
Eight-year-old Labrador Bonnie is a therapy dog who has been a regular visitor to the paediatric unit at UHL for the past two years, visiting and playing with young inpatients and day patients, and generally brightening the day for all.
Her handler and owner is Emma Hogan, who works at University Hospital Limerick as secretary to Respiratory Consultant, Dr Brian Casserly. Emma is a lifelong animal lover who saw her voluntary work with Irish Therapy Dogs as a way of “giving something back”.
“The children are here as inpatients, or they might be coming in for day treatments, either of which can involve a lot of waiting and sitting around, which can be difficult for a child. But when they see Bonnie, their eyes just light up,” Emma explains.
“Many of them will hug and kiss Bonnie, and really connect with her. Of course, food helps as well, and we give the children little biscuits to give to Bonnie as treats,” she explains.
“It’s incredible what dogs can achieve, and they connections they make. Bonnie is very good with children who have learning disabilities or autism, and those who may never talk. When they see Bonnie, you can see a flicker of recognition and a smile, and it’s amazing to witness. There’s a little boy who comes in for day treatment and we meet him every four or five months. One time, he was refusing to do his reading homework, but when I came in with Bonnie, he agreed to read his story to her. Having her visit is a really positive experience for the children,” she said.
Emma is a lifelong lover of animals who has always been intrigued by dogs’ skills in acting as assistance animals, as well as their extraordinary abilities in detecting cancer and anticipating epileptic attacks.
She was prompted to register Bonnie as a therapy dog after witnessing the heartbreak of a relative who was placed in a nursing home and separated from their beloved pet.
After Irish Therapy Dogs assessed Bonnie’s temperament and found her suitable, Emma began taking the Labrador to visit the residents of a local nursing home, and then began making enquiries in UHL. As it turned out, Emma was pushing at an open door.
Explains Kris Buckley, the Senior Play Specialist at the Children’s Ark: “I had actually been thinking about the possibility of having a therapy dog visit the Children’s Ark, when I was approached by Emma who wondered if we would be interested in having Bonnie in.”
“It’s one of the best things we’ve done here. Bonnie makes such a huge difference to everybody in the Children’s Ark when she and Emma come in for their visits,” Kris adds.
“It’s incredible the benefits that assistance dogs can bring. There is a girl here who suffers from anxiety, and she has an assistance dog. She came in for an EEG, and she just froze when the staff went to place the stickers on her. But the dog went up against the bed and buried his head into the girl’s lap, and she calmed right down. The staff, who were then able to complete the EEG, had never seen anything like it before and were completely amazed,” Kris explained.
She added: “We see it all the time with Bonnie too. She brightens everyone’s day. We have such a busy environment, and whether it’s for staff or the children, she is just a happy reminder of home and normality. There was one little boy in here, and he had autism and particularly poor communication skills, with little or no eye contact even. When myself, Emma and Bonnie came into the room, the boy got down from his bed, right down on the floor for a big chat and a play with Bonnie. It was the most that the child had spoken in about four weeks.”
On behalf of the Children’s Ark, Kris expressed her deep gratitude to Emma and Bonnie: “The hospital is such a busy environment and it is just lovely to see a member of staff driving something like this. Many of the staff here really do go way beyond the call of duty and make such a huge difference in the patients’ experience of the hospital, and we really appreciate what Emma and Bonnie do for us.”