TORONTO — At the Hospital for Sick Children, Shaynee attracts attention everywhere she goes.
People smile and wave at her. Children call, “I love you, Shaynee!” down the hallways. She may not know why she’s so popular, but Shaynee laps it all up, her tail wagging furiously. Yes – her tail.
Caden, a patient at SickKids Hospital is seen with his dad and Shaynee, a dog who visits the hospital weekly as part of the PAWS program.
Shaynee is one of two therapy dogs – the other is Digby – currently in the hospital’s PAWS (Pets at Work) program, which has been running at SickKids for about 15 years, says Susan Bresler, the program’s team leader. There were 11 dogs at one point, she adds, but they have retired or their owners have become ill or died.
Michelle Pincus, Shaynee’s owner, has been taking her “Shaynee maydele” to volunteer at SickKids for the past two years. Every Wednesday morning, the two, along with fellow volunteer Simone Bronfman, visit children on the fifth floor, which primarily houses general surgery, neurology and orthopedics. Most of the children are in short-term care, but Pincus and Bronfman know kids who have been in the hospital for years. They’ve developed relationships with those kids and their parents, and Bronfman even takes Polaroids of each child with Shaynee every week. This way, she says, “they have a wall of Shaynee” to look at.
Michelle Pincus, holding her dog Shaynee, is seen with SickKids volunteer Simone Bronfman.
Some people view Shaynee, a six-year-old soft-coated wheaten terrier, as a kind of miracle, Pincus says. Physiotherapists have asked her to bring Shaynee to visit kids they have not been able to get to move or do exercises. When Shaynee arrives, the kids reach over to pet her.
The dog brings light to everyone who sees her, Pincus says, and not only the young patients. She recalls one time when a doctor was sitting on the floor, completely exhausted. “He saw Shaynee and said, ‘I need therapy too!’”
Pincus and Bronfman say their goal each Wednesday is to visit at least eight kids. This morning is a bit quieter than most, but it doesn’t matter to Shaynee. Wearing her red therapy dog vest, she’s eager to visit her first patient of the day, a little girl who can’t sit up to greet her visitor, but who is very excited to see her. She buries her face in Shaynee’s fur, scratching under her furry chin.
“How do you do?” She shakes Shaynee’s paw. “Good puppy.”
Pincus hands the girl treats to feed Shaynee, who takes them carefully from the small hand.
As we move from room to room – visiting only children whose guardians are present – Shaynee never pulls away, never grows restless or misbehaves in any way.
People always assume Shaynee has been extremely well trained, Pincus says, and therapy dogs do have to be certified by Therapeutic PAWS of Canada, first to work with adults, and then, after at least a year’s experience, with children.
Therapeutic PAWS of Canada, a charitable organization that has representatives throughout southern Ontario as well as in Montreal and the Atlantic provinces, uses a rigorous evaluation procedure for each animal before designating it as a therapy dog.
Still, it is the dog’s natural personality that’s key, Pincus says. She had another wheaten terrier before Shaynee joined her family, but she says he was too aggressive to be a therapy dog. Shaynee is just very calm.
“We’ve had siblings of children in the hospital pull her tail or squeeze her into a sausage,” Bronfman says, “and she doesn’t bite.”
Shaynee visits other patients – one little girl, Kandis, who shyly hugs the dog and invites her into the hospital bed; a tiny girl with hot pink casts on both her legs; a baby boy, Caden, who reaches out to Shaynee as soon as Pincus places her in his crib (all the adults in the room scare him, but he clearly feels safe with the 35-pound dog sitting across from him).
One woman kneels down to pet Shaynee in the hallway. She’s visiting a one-year-old boy who is quarantined because of a blood infection. “It’s too bad he can’t see the dog,” she says. “He’s been in here his whole life and has never seen one.”
Pincus and Shaynee also volunteer at a nursing home every week to visit a man dying of cancer who is in palliative care. Last summer, they participated in a North York library’s reading program where kids read to Shaynee.
“If kids read to a dog, their reading improves exponentially,” Pincus says, referring to studies she’s read from the United States. “They don’t feel judged.”
This winter, Shaynee couldn’t get to SickKids for a couple weeks because of Toronto’s storms. “When we got back, she was so happy to be here,” Pincus says. And SickKids was happy to have her.
But the hospital staff wish there were more dogs like Shaynee, and more volunteers like Pincus and Bronfman at the hospital. Bresler receives five phone calls a week about the program, which runs Monday through Friday. But, in the majority of cases, people don’t realize how patient they must be to begin the program, and they don’t follow through. It takes about a year to get a dog into the program, Bresler says, and they need volunteers to team up with the dog and its owner as well.
But the wait is worth it. For Bronfman, who has been volunteering regularly for more than 20 years, SickKids’ PAWS program is “a wonderful situation… it’s a hands on, feel good program.”
“It’s extremely rewarding,” Pincus says. “Shaynee helps me do bikur cholim, and without her, I would not have started this whole thing.”