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Duke doctor thinks therapy dogs could help pediatric heart patients

Posted June 21

When children are born with heart problems, the hospital becomes a familiar place, but they can still be scared, which only makes exams and treatment more difficult.

Some doctors are hoping furry visitors may offer a welcome distraction.

Gabriel Brannock, a 3-year-old boy from Mount Airy, was one of those kids born with a heart defect. His mom says it was summer of last year when Duke University Hospital doctors told the family he would eventually need a heart transplant.

"So, it's been almost a year, so we come here every three months," Brandi Brannock said.

Every three months, the Brannocks go for blood tests and an echocardiogram. It's a painless procedure, but getting clear heart images without sedation can be challenging with children.

"We want them to be still, and we want them to be comfortable," said Duke pediatric cardiologist Dr. Piers Barker.

Barker thinks the answer to smoother procedures could be Aspen, an 11-year-old Golden Retriever.

"When I first got Aspen, I knew that he was going to be a great therapy dog," said Aspen's owner Lisa Wells.

Wells is helping Duke with a study to see if therapy dogs can actually help staff obtain better quality images inside the heart.

So, Aspen and Gabriel met. There were tears at first, but later it looked like Aspen's laid back nature helped Gabriel relax.

Wells saw Aspen's warm presence have the same effect on her own mother in the moments before she passed away.

"He was beside her the whole time," Wells said. "It made her forget some of the things that were going on and just enjoy the moment."

Barker believes therapy dogs achieve more than just making these exams easier to endure.

"It potentially offers an alternative to sedation," Barker said, which is more costly and time consuming.

On Gabriel's day in the hospital, Aspen's job is done with great success.

"So, I think he liked it pretty good, and he's stayed pretty still afterwards," Brandi Brannock said.

Barker says it is a unique "out of the box" approach, and it includes a special collaboration between different partners. Those partners include the Pets at Duke program, the Duke Canine Cognition Center and the Norht Carolina State University School of Veterinary Medicine.

There are six or seven different dogs involved, and part of the study includes videotaping the dogs' behaviors, looking for stress hormones in their saliva and checking the dogs' heart rates.

The groups want to make sure this is a good experience for the dogs as well.

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