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Judy and Bobby Shackouls

Starting this past October, Texas Children’s Hospital patients and families may have noticed a new employee walking the halls wearing a bright green vest emblazoned with the Texas Children’s logo. But she isn’t your typical employee.

She’s furry, has four legs and she’s only two years old.

She’s Elsa, Texas Children’s new therapy dog and part of the Facility Dog Program developed by Texas Children’s Child Life team. The program uses animal-assisted therapy to enhance the emotional well-being of pediatric patients by reducing their anxiety, perception of pain and fear of hospitalization.

In the year prior to the program’s launch, the Child Life team collaborated with Canine Assistants, a non-profit organization in Atlanta, GA, that has matched more than 1,500 service dogs, making both individual and hospital placements. Together, the two organizations gathered benchmarking information and worked on program development. And this past December, the Development team and Child Life leadership presented the facility dog program to the Shackouls family who graciously decided to support the program.

“It is our hope that the support and love these therapy animals provide will help countless children in making their treatment and recovery journeys brighter,” Judy and Bobby Shackouls said. “We look forward to watching this program grow into something even bigger because every child, no matter their age, gender, background or health condition, deserves to feel the unconditional love and comfort these animals can provide throughout the healing process.”

“Elsa provides goal-oriented therapeutic interventions to patients, families and staff,” said Mary Tietjens, assistant director of Clinical Support Services at Texas Children’s. “She offers support to patients and families who may be having trouble coping with hospital stays, a new diagnosis or other traumatic experiences. She also provides distraction and motivation to patients undergoing certain medical procedures.”

During her training with Canine Assistants, Elsa demonstrated strong competencies geared toward working in a pediatric hospital environment. She spent additional time training at Children’s Hospital of Atlanta working with pediatric patients alongside her handler, Sarah Herbek, a Child Life specialist and animal-assisted therapy coordinator at Texas Children’s.

Then, just like any new employee, Elsa spent the first few weeks at Texas Children’s getting acclimated to her new surroundings with Sarah before seeing patients in the West Tower at the Texas Medical Center Campus.

The positive response to Elsa’s arrival has been overwhelming.

“We are so excited to finally bring this program to fruition at Texas Children’s Hospital,” Tietjens said. “This was a collaborative team effort and would not have been possible without the support of the Shackouls family and the hard work of everyone involved.”

Texas Children’s new four-legged employee is making a big difference in the lives of our patients. Katie Schommer, who also works with Elsa, shared the story of a recent patient encounter.

“Elsa and I were walking by the physical therapy gym on the rehabilitation unit and overheard a patient becoming frustrated with doing his therapy,” Schommer said. “When we walked by, his whole attitude switched, and he called out excitedly, ‘Elsa is here!’ His physical therapist asked if Elsa could join in for the therapy session. It was clear from her insistent tail-wagging that Elsa was excited to help!

“The patient stood to pet Elsa and then initiated a game of fetch. The physical therapists were so proud to see the boy standing on both legs because that’s what they had been trying to get him to do for 15 minutes! Elsa continued to check in to provide encouragement and motivation for this boy to continue with his rehabilitation therapy. She also enjoys a good game of fetch whenever she can get it in! Each time Elsa came, this patient’s face lit up with excitement as she joined his therapy sessions and made them much more fun.”

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