published Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

Atticus and Mookie: Four-legged therapists bring cheer wherever they go

Cindee Smith walks her Great Dane Atticus out of a patient's room after letting the child meet her dogs at T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital at Erlanger on Monday. Smith visits the T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital once a month to allow patients to visit with two of her dogs, Atticus and a Shih Tzu named Mookie.
Cindee Smith walks her Great Dane Atticus out of a patient's room after letting the child meet her dogs at T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital at Erlanger on Monday. Smith visits the T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital once a month to allow patients to visit with two of her dogs, Atticus and a Shih Tzu named Mookie.
Photo by C. B. Schmelter.
  • photo
    Lauryn Blansit, 11, pets Mookie the Shih Tzu in her hospital bed at T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital at Erlanger on Monday. Mookie was brought to the hospital by Cindee Smith as a way to help cheer the children up.
    Photo by C. B. Schmelter.
    enlarge photo

In a hall full of scrubs and white coats, the two therapists stepping off the elevator are a study in diversity.

One vaguely resembles a feather duster. The other is as large and muscular as a motorcycle.

The two dogs at the end of the leashes -- Atticus, a 160-pound Great Dane, and Mookie, a 14-pound Shih Tzu -- don't even seem like they belong to the same species. But the duo has a singular mission as they trot onto the hospital floor: Comfort sick children.

Both are therapy dogs at T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital at Erlanger, guided by their owner, Cindee Smith.

The dogs can barely get through the lobby with all the kids wanting to reach down -- or up -- to pet them. Smith greets each child who approaches.

"Do you want to give them a hug?" she asks one little boy in the hall with an IV in his hand. "Do you think Atticus looks like Scooby-Doo?"

Atticus and Mookie bookend the spectrum of breeds and sizes in Erlanger's 51-dog pet therapy program.

Recent studies have revealed the intricate benefits of pet therapy for patients' morale and lightening their perception of pain. But it doesn't take science or statistics to see that wagging tails and furry faces can calm fears, soothe loneliness and distract from pain.

"Many of the kids miss their dogs at home. This is something normal for them," said Child Life Specialist Maggie Butler before starting the day's rounds with Smith. "It's something for them to look forward to."

When 8-year-old Robert Serrano's family opens his hospital room door to let the dogs in, his jaw drops. Then he starts giggling.

While Atticus and Mookie are in the room, everyone forgets about Roberto's internal bleeding. They pet the pups and laugh.

Some children are scared by Atticus' size, but they quickly warm up to the gentle giant. He has helped stroke-stricken patients walk and talk again, and reintroduced dog-bite victims to man's best friend.

Smith began training him as a therapy dog six years ago after her veterinarian suggested it. When she adopted Mookie several years later, she started training him, too.

"Teaching them how to walk together was a challenge at first," Smith said, laughing.

Mookie typically has to be plopped onto kids' beds, where he snuggles up for a belly-rub. Meanwhile, Atticus -- with a shoulder height of 39 inches -- only has to nod his head onto the mattress to get a scratch.

Lauryn Blansit, 11, tries cuddling both at the same time. In the hospital for a severely swollen lymph node and gland, she's already asked her parents to sneak her dogs inside the hospital room.

"This is the best thing that's happened to us today," her mother, Jennifer, says.

The dogs reaches the children in ways that people can't, in ways that Smith doesn't understand.

"We've visited kids post-surgery who aren't responsive, but they'd respond to Atticus. I'd just get in my car and cry," she said. "I think they instinctively pick up on our emotions. They just get it."

This week, the two dogs gently approached 5-year-old Colton Keeble, lying in a hospital bed for the eighth time this year.

After seven brain surgeries, Colton now has tonsillitis. Hopefully this won't be another one of his long stays, his mother sighs.

Colton cannot see, cannot sit up, and cannot talk much -- but he flings his arms out to pet Atticus' velvety ears and stroke Mookie's long fur.

He smiles. The duo has done their job.

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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