Image: José Coelho/ Lusa

Assistance dog hospital project “exceeds expectations”

Dogs don’t just help children; they help “everyone in the hospital”

Underway since October 2022, the assistance dog project at the Paediatric Ward of the São João Hospital in Porto has exceeded expectations, with health professionals admitting they too have benefited from the experience.

The impact of Zazu, a 2-year-old golden retriever, and Tika, a 3-year-old labrador retriever, has long ceased to be limited to children and relatives present in the Paediatric Ward, stress sources.

The dogs have managed to work their magic on health professionals “contributing to moments of relaxation and affection”, says Lusa.

Catarina Cascais, Zazu’s handler, tells the State news agency:”We began to realise that, besides direct benefits for the children, the dogs also helped their families, health professionals and the entire hospital”.

This perception has actually changed the whole approach of the project, she explained, as now it is clear that professionals under stress can find relaxation in just five minutes petting a therapy dog.

That five minutes can be “equivalent to the relaxation achieved in 20 minutes of rest or a nap”, she said.

“It happens to us in the corridors. We meet health professionals who tell us that this is their favourite day of the week”.

Catarina is one of the volunteers from Ânimas, an association that trains assistance dogs for people with disabilities who apply for this kind of help. At the end of the training, they dogs are given free of charge to their new owners.

The project in Porto’s São João appears to have had no downsides whatsoever. Whereas in the past, even the notion of an animal in a healthcare unit was anathema, now health professionals see the difference they can make in a day’s work.

“They give us comfort”, paediatrician Irene Carvalho agrees.

Nurse Madalena Pacheco believes the project is one that has “been needed for a long time” as it allows for the release of emotions “both of professionals and even of the parents…”

In the Neonatal ward, for example, parents have expressly asked for the project to be continued, she said.

Countries like the United States have myriad projects like this one, but like in many things, Portugal has taken its time to ‘come on board’.

Now, the chances are, other health units will follow. Already project coordinator Gabriella Borges tells Lusa that doctors embracing the approach “sometimes suggest we visit a certain room to help a sick child”, particularly if there is a new procedure to be undertaken (which the child could be anxious about).

Source material: LUSA