My downtown neighbors, Bob O’Connor and Francis Vocking, and their adorable chocolate Labradoodle, Indy, walked across the street to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital for their regular twice-a-month visit. They were on their way to cheer up the young patients and their families. I was fortunate to be invited along to see first-hand what a difference this unique volunteer ‘team’ makes in children’s lives.

Francis Vocking and Bob O’Connor stop to let
Indy give a little TLC to an employee at Johns
Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.

The children loved it when Indy arrived, greeting him with a heartwarming display of affection, smiles, and petting. Whether they’re sick or not, children need fun experiences. Some of them have dogs at home that they miss, and Indy’s visit can bring comfort. The children ask about Indy or tell stories about their own dogs. The parents are delighted to see their child smiling and enthusiastic; it’s a great diversion from being sick and in the hospital.

Bob and Francis are always upbeat and friendly. Bob asks the child, “Are you ready to smile and make Indy smile?” He strikes up a lighthearted conversation with the children about their dog at home and says how much Indy enjoys visiting them. Francis makes sure Indy is comfortable and might put a blanket on the bed so the dog can lay down next to  the child. The visit is short but clearly Bob, Francis, and Indy have brought a little excitement to the day and some welcome ‘playtime.’

Having a dog visit adds a little joy to a patient’s day.

At the end of our afternoon together, Bob tells me, “Honestly, I think we get more out of this than the children.” Francis readily agrees.

Bob and Francis are both retired and when they moved to St. Pete, they decided to give back to the community by signing up as pet therapy volunteers with Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. As you can imagine, there are certain rules and regulations, as well as training involved in participating in a program like this. The dog owners have to be at least 18 years old.  They complete an interview and screening process, followed by a hospital orientation.

The dogs must be certified through a pet-therapy certifying organization and owners must show proof of liability insurance. Certain breeds are especially well suited to be therapy dogs.  Labradoodles like Indy have a natural social nature, and the dogs are eager to learn new tasks and are highly intelligent. They’re gentle and have an easy-going temperament. Indy personifies these qualities and he enjoys every minute of his ‘job,’ wagging his tail and snuggling with the children.

Indy takes his job visiting patients seriously.

During each visit, Bob, Francis, and Indy are given a list of 20 to 30 patients to visit. Then they  spend the next three hours or so going from room to room to spread a little joy. It’s always a team effort. Bob goes into the room first, showing the child a colorful ID card with all sorts of information about Indy and why he’s there. Next, Francis brings Indy in to meet the patient. Parents are often in the room, too, and appreciate the fun break that a visit like this can bring to everyone. If the patients on the list are not feeling well or are just not in the mood to see the dog, they can of course decline the visit.

Hospital stays can be stressful and frightening for children and parents. Many of the patients at Johns Hopkins All Children’s are very ill. Adding a few minutes of fun in a day and putting a smile on a child’s face is a priceless gift. Currently there are 27 dogs and 68 owners who are participating in the hospital’s pet-therapy volunteer program, which has been in operation for over a decade.  It’s a win-win for the children, the volunteers, the dog, and the hospital.

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