Enter SaraLee, a 2-year-old golden retriever now part of CHKD’s child life department. As CHKD’s new facility dog, SaraLee is specially trained to provide mental, physical and emotional support to young patients and their families in the hospital.

“Having a dog around can provide a lot of comfort and normalize a child’s experience while they are here,” says Shannon Hood, manager of CHKD’s child life program and SaraLee’s handler. Shannon was matched with the young dog this spring and spent two weeks with Canine Companions for Independence, the organization that trained the dog. SaraLee lives with Shannon and comes to work with her as part of the child life team at CHKD every day.

Interactions with a therapy animal are proven to help lower stress and anxiety levels, regulate blood pressure, increase patient mobility and distract from pain. “Simply stroking SaraLee’s fur can give children a sense of calm,” says Shannon.

A facility dog can also provide motivation – a young patient might be inspired to get out of bed if he can take SaraLee for a walk down the hall. A simple game of fetch can double as a therapy exercise to improve balance and coordination in a child who needs physical therapy after a serious illness or injury.

This was certainly true for Luke. SaraLee’s friendly personality provided the perfect distraction from Luke’s pain, and her eagerness to play motivated him to move during therapy sessions. By the end of his three-week stay at CHKD, Luke could do more than take SaraLee on walks; he could race her down the hallway without pain. And SaraLee was able to fetch something Luke had been missing weeks before ... his smile.