A lot of hospitals are short-staffed right now, but the Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Florida is getting a helping hand from one impressive pooch. The hospital wanted to hire a facility dog for years and they finally found the perfect candidate in Parks, a 2-year-old Labrador retriever. The dog knows over 40 different commands and can even play cards. Nothing spreads joy like a furry friend. Turns out he was just what the doctor ordered.
A Vital Asset
Parks joined the staff in February, and he’s been making a big difference ever since. He can do a lot more than sit or raise his paw on command. He can retrieve and push objects, turn the light switch on and off, and even pull drawers open using his mouth and some rope.
He also spends his time comforting and entertaining the young patients. Parks can play cards using his mouth, but he doesn’t really know which cards to play or when. Having a dog around has also motivated the children to walk around the hospital.
“He is definitely a huge part of our team,” said Kim Burbage, a child-life specialist at the hospital who works with Parks and cares for him when they’re not at work. “We started developing the position and the policies surrounding it in the fall of 2020.”
The hospital applied for the dog through Canine Companions, a non-profit that trains dogs for the government, healthcare, and education. The organization says each dog costs around $50,000 to train but are free for applicants. Over 370 dogs were given out last year alone.
“We rely on the generosity of individual donors and foundations and special events,” said Martha Johnson, a public relations and marketing coordinator at Canine Companions. As for Parks, the Arnold & Winnie Palmer Foundation contributed a grant to fund his placement at the hospital.
The non-profit specializes in crossbreeding Labradors and retrievers, which tend to be the best in terms of work ethic and temperament.
The dogs start learning social skills when they are just 8 weeks old. They typically start working in the field after two years of training.
But only the top-tier candidates make the cut.
Only 55% of the dogs get placed, Johnson explained, “because our standards are so high.” The others will work as service animals or in search-and-rescue operations where they can be more useful.
Burbage recently added canine management to her list of duties and responsibilities.
She said her goal was to find a dog that would serve as a “therapeutic tool” for children and families grappling with life-altering diagnoses.
Burbage remembers connecting with Parks right away when she visited the organization in Northern California.
“Parks was the best fit for her,” said Robyn Bush, a trainer at Canine Companions. “He stood out as the one that was working really flawlessly with her.”
Burbage was immediately struck with Parks’ playful side. “He is really wonderful,” she said.
Facility dogs can “have a very strong impact day to day, but also a lifelong impact on patients,” said Bush. “It’s wonderful to see them touch so many lives.”
Parks will even cater his approach based on the specific physical and emotional needs of the child.
Patients with autism often respond to feelings of deep pressure. When he hears the command “cover,” Parks will lay out flat on top of the child like a weighted blanket to give them comfort and support.
Burbage says Parks will also help elicit different reactions from the children, which can help the team assess their medical progress.
The children typically burst into a smile as soon as Parks appears.
“I love when he’s around,” said Makiyah, a young patient being treated at the hospital. “He’s a nice puppy.”
“They just get so excited to have him there,” Burbage said.
Like all new employees, Parks is always learning new skills.
“There’s a lot they learn,” said Bush, “You can use the commands in a variety of ways.”
“When he is working, he tends to be a little bit more serious, having to focus on all the commands,” Burbage added. “I can’t wait to see where he’s at in a couple months.”