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Canine Compassion for Kids

Children's National facility dog Sprout, made possible by the Dunkin' Joy in Childhood Foundation, comforts a patient

The 4-year old patient always got upset during her twice-a-year MRI visits. “She would cry until the anesthesia took over and it was hard on her,” says Holly Bulgarella, a Child Life Specialist who works in our radiology department. Holly helps children and families cope with the stress of being in the hospital. She recently partnered with a new professional on the job: a facility dog named Sprout. This highly trained, hard-working and gentle dog splits his time between Holly and two other handlers ― all Child Life Specialists who call themselves the Sprout Squad.

Holly recently introduced the 4-year-old MRI patient to Sprout. They sat together on the floor to get acquainted. “I showed her how Sprout could wear an anesthesia mask and she thought that was fun,” Holly says. The mom remarked that she never had seen her daughter so at ease before an MRI. Having Sprout involved also gave the patient more control, Holly says. The child could decide whether to have Sprout on the floor or on a chair next to her or whether she would like to hold his paw or touch his ears during the anesthesia procedure.

“Having Sprout in the room and giving her these kind of choices made a huge difference,” Holly says. That day, the girl chose to have Sprout in a chair next to her and hold on to his ear, rather than her mom’s hand. Instead of panicking, she chatted with Sprout as she got drowsy.

“Afterwards, the mom was so moved that she got on the floor to thank Sprout,” Holly says. “She could barely speak. I was so proud of him in that moment. It really demonstrated the bond that can happen between dogs and children ― it’s something potentially more powerful than any of the rest of us, no matter our training.”