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New facility dog and handler will use advanced training and comforting presence to help children and families cope

A highly trained facility dog has joined the Child-Family Life Services program at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital.

Rocket has a big job to do at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital.

A 2-year-old golden retriever, he's the hospital’s first and only full-time facility dog. He made his debut at the hospital on Nov. 25, working alongside his handler, Certified Child Life Specialist Anna Dressel, to support the children and families under our care. The initiative, called the NutriSource Facility Dog Program, was funded through a generous $250,000 gift from KLN Family Brands, parent company of Tuffy’s Pet Foods, producers of NutriSource and other premium pet food brands.

Facility dogs like Rocket are workers first, pets second. Rocket has received years of advanced, specialized training from Georgia-based Canine Assistants, a nonprofit dedicated to educating and placing service dogs with individuals and in healthcare settings. This training sets him apart from the beloved volunteer therapy dogs that serve at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital.

Philanthropic donations made the NutriSource Facility Dog Program possible. Want to support Rocket and his handler, Anna Dressel? Click here to contribute to the program.

Unlike other therapy animals, Rocket can be in a patient room during medical procedures to comfort children and families during particularly stressful moments. Rocket and Anna can also conduct special therapeutic interventions with a child, which may include encouraging a child to walk after surgery, helping a child to learn to take medicine, providing comfort and support during painful moments, or reducing anxiety before or during a procedure.

“If a child needed to get an IV, for example, Rocket could help the child cope with what is happening by creating a calm and comforting presence,” Dressel said.

Before nursing staff would place the IV, Dressel would assess the child and family’s emotional needs, and then partner with the dog to attend to those needs. That could include preparing the child for the procedure, serving as a calming distraction during the procedure, or even educating the child about the IV placement using medical materials and the dog.

“A child life specialist goes through all the steps of what an IV is using materials that are safe,” Dressel said. “The dog can be part of that, and bring a little bit of play into that preparation to lower anxieties, increase comfort, and allow that child to cope with what is taking place. In turn, that’s reducing the experience of potential trauma.”

Like any other employee, Rocket will spend 40 hours a week at the hospital with families. After he’s done for the day, he will go home with Dressel. 

The addition of the facility dog will not replace the existing volunteer pet therapy program at the children’s hospital, said Stephanie Hopkinson, manager of our Child-Family Life Services program. The pet therapy program is a treasured resource for children, families, and staff at our hospital. The work that Rocket and Anna will conduct in the hospital is fundamentally different in scope and focus from the role of the volunteers and their dogs with the pet therapy program.

The combination of the facility dog’s calming presence and the child life specialist’s expertise truly elevates the program’s potential, Dressel said. Child life specialists are focused on supporting families holistically throughout their hospital journey, and adding a facility dog supports a connection with a child that goes beyond words.

“I’ve seen the way that animals can really impact people on a level that goes beyond the human connection,” said Dressel. “They’re able to meet an emotional need that’s really unique. It’s hard to put into words.”

That’s why Hopkinson and Dressel are so passionate about the new program – and so grateful for KLN Family Brands’ financial support.

“We just want to extend our heartfelt thanks and profound gratitude to KLN Family Brands for helping launch this innovative program,” Hopkinson said.  

Child life specialists are pediatric health care professionals who work with children and families to help them cope with the challenges and stress related to healthcare, hospitalization, illness and disability. Learn more about their work.