Happy Child Life month!  My name is Jennifer Johnson and this year marks the 30th anniversary of my career in the child life field. When I reflect back on the past 30 years and all that I have accomplished, my proudest achievement has been my work with a dog by my side.  Back in 2003, our child life program started a facility dog program and welcomed Hazel, a sweet two-year-old Labrador/Golden Retriever from Canine Companions for Independence.

My entire career has been at Sutter Medical Center, Sacramento. For the past 24 years, I have worked exclusively with the pediatric oncology population.  Most would say they could never survive in this position for as long as I have.

But, I firmly believe it is because of the endless joy and rewarding outcomes that my work with my current facility dog, Glimmer brings.  Glimmer is a very important tool in my work with patients and families. Because of her skill set, I am able to utilize her in my daily interventions that would otherwise not be possible with an untrained dog. Glimmer’s sweet demeanor and softest fur make even the most difficult situations a bit better.

My journey with my first facility dog, Millie began back in 2004.  This means I have worked over half of my career with a facility dog by my side!  Both Hazel and Millie really paved the way and pioneered so much of what we now are seeing across the country with facility dog programs. Through all of the changes in healthcare, the one thing that has remained constant is the incredible support our child life and facility dog programs have received from our hospital.  We have grown our program within the Sutter Health hospital system to 14 dogs, all working in various settings within Northern California. There are currently six dogs on our campus, matched up with Child Life Specialists. What I love most about having Glimmer by my side are the unexpected nuggets that come from each day. Dogs have a way of bringing people together in both joy and sorrow.

So many people have asked me through the years, “How is a facility dog different from a therapy dog?” Here are a few of the main differences, but this list is just the beginning.

Pet therapy dogs are typically volunteers that have permission to visit a public facility. They are required to pass a “canine good citizen” test or obedience test through AKC. They are usually registered by a therapy dog program and ongoing follow-up is not required.

Facility dogs are expertly trained and matched with professional, certified handlers. The dogs are trained for approximately two years and work a minimum of 20 hours a week.  They engage in interventions or tasks that benefit the patient or client with the direction of their handler. The handler and facility dog pass a standardized public safety exam through Assistance Dogs International (ADI) and have ongoing certifications.

If you are considering adding a facility dog to your program, I would advise you to lean in and ask the experts, do your homework on the various organizations that train and provide facility dogs, but most of all run, don’t walk. You won’t regret it!

Canine Companions for Independence is a non-profit organization that enhances the lives of people with disabilities by providing highly trained assistance dogs at no charge to the recipient. Canine Companions is the largest provider of assistance dogs in the world. They train service dogs for adults, children, and veterans, and facility dogs who work with professionals in a visitation, education, or healthcare setting.

For more information on Canine Companions, please visit www.caninecompanions.org