How therapy dogs are helping nervous children unwind during doctor visits

Reading Paws program brings comfort to children in waiting rooms

ORLANDO, Fla. – Michael Morrissey and his golden retriever Crosby are a dynamic duo -- both at work and at home.

"He's a very mellow dog by nature ... but when he sees me grab my black bag and we get ready to go on a visit, is one of the few times I really see him get excited," Morrissey said. 

That's when Crosby knows it's time to go to work. For the past nine years, he's been working in different places, including schools, libraries and now Nemours Children's Hospital in Orlando, where patients have the opportunity to read to dogs like him.

Nemours Children's Hospital recently partnered with the Reading Paws program as a way to provide a sense of relief for kids while they wait to see the doctor. 

"He just loves people. He loves being patted. He just enjoys the work and continue to do it as long as he does," Morrissey said.

Patricia López Olsen learned about the program when she brought her 5-year-old daughter for a doctor's visit.

Olsen said she thinks it's a great way to to get children involved in reading, as well as more comfortable around animals. She thinks both opportunities allow children the chance to feel different emotions.

[RELATED: Children with special needs shine during Theater Week at Dr. Phillips CenterTrying to keep your child entertained and away from the TV?]

"It's a mixture of them, I think, empathy and getting them more enthusiastic about learning," Olsen said.

Pam Edyburn, the coordinator for the family resource center said it's a good way to help calm a child's nerves when they're anxious about their visit.

"There are so many emotions that are going on when children come to the outpatient clinics. They don't know what exactly the procedure is going to be, what the appointment is going to be like," Edyburn said.

She said it can also help ease parents' anxieties, too.

But it not only helps with their emotional well-being, Edyburn said it also helps improve their reading skills.

"With the research it shows that the children ... it reduces their anxiety and is also a nonjudgemental way for them to increase their literacy skills." Edyburn said.

For the mini reading session, children can pick a book to read from a wagon full of children's books.

Having the dog present eliminates the bad pressure and adds more positive ones, hospital volunteer Jaqueline Randolph said. 

"With a dog, they have unconditional love, they feel relaxation, their blood pressure drops. They won't feel intimidated whatsoever and they will try harder," said Randolph, who volunteers at the hospital with her dog Colonel. 

Reading Paws uses nationally registered animal-owner therapy teams. Colonel is a 5-year-old rescue dog and, alongside Randolph, they're part of thousands of teams currently working with the program to serve Alabama, Nevada, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida.

Randolph said there are more than 6,000 reading teams in the United States, with more than 100 teams in Florida.

"I think there's 165 in Florida alone, and they've shown that children end up striving and wanting to do better," Randolph said.

López said she loves the program and thinks it will have a lasting impact on her daughter.

"I thought it was amazing. It's going to make her want to go home and read to her own dogs ... it's great," López said.

Once the reading session is done, each child gets to keep the book of their choice.

Each dog and its owner go through special testing. The dogs are tested based on their temperament and how they interact with children, and owners are evaluated to see how they handle their dog. 

About the Author: