A Child Life Specialists' Best Friend: The History of Facility Dog Programming

ACLP Bulletin  |  Summer 2023  |  Vol. 41, No. 3

Lynn McGurgan, MS, CCLS
Inova L.J. Murphy Children’s Hospital 

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Bartley, facility dog at Inova L.J. Murphy Children’s Hospital 


Bartley, facility dog at Inova L.J. Murphy Children’s Hospital 

Have you ever heard of the saying “dogs are a man’s best friend”? This phase was coined way back in 1789 to describe dogs’ close companionship, loyalty, and friendship with humans. The idea that animals could be used as a therapeutic modality to treat hospitalized patients was introduced in the 1970s by a nurse named Elaine Smith, and it is no surprise that dogs won out when deciding between rabbits, pigs, and fish (Howe et al., 2021). With Smith’s guidance, trained volunteers and their personally owned therapy dogs would frequently visit children’s hospitals to provide comfort and support. Throughout the years the growth of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) and the definition of what that means has grown, allowing specially-trained facility dogs to provide a larger role in the care of pediatric patients and their caregivers. AAT is used today to reduce stress and promote coping by using a trained therapy animal to improve a patient’s social, emotional, and cognitive functioning (Howe et al., 2021). Today it is common to see child life specialists utilizing AAT as a part of their clinical duties. This article will explore the history and evolution of facility dogs within the child life profession and how facility dogs are used in child life programs today. 

Therapy dogs and facility dogs may not sound very different, but they each provide unique and varied services to a wide array of populations. Therapy dogs are typically pets who provide comfort, affection and companionship (Schoenfeld-Tacher, 2017). These dogs can typically be found in places such as hospitals and nursing homes. Facility dogs are highly trained in tasks to assist professionals working in healthcare, rehabilitation, criminal justice or education settings. Facility dogs receive additional specialized training compared to therapy dogs and have more concrete goals and outcomes when providing services. Facility dogs may assist a child life specialist and physical therapist with a child’s goal of walking, while a therapy dog may come visit the hospital with a volunteer to provide comfort. 

Fine et al., (2019) found although AAT has been around for many years in some shape or form, until the last 10 or so years, there has been little research supporting the use of dogs in the pediatric healthcare setting. Today it is typical to see a child life specialist utilizing AAT as a part of their clinical duties. This article will explore the history and evolution of facility dogs within the child life profession, and how facility dogs are used in child life programs today.  

The History 

Many children’s hospitals have at least one facility dog as part of their child life department or hospital programming. However, even just 30 years ago this was not nearly as common. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed, which expanded the idea that service dogs could be used for purposes other than blindness and deafness, such as emotional and therapeutic support (Schoenfeld-Tacher, 2017). As many dogs began going through service dog training, it was found that not every dog was qualified to work in this capacity. Many of these dogs ended up failing service dog training for reasons like being too friendly, making them perfect for a facility dog position (Schoenfeld-Tacher, 2017).  

Over time, nonprofit organizations began developing programs to support the funding, training, and education of facility dogs within healthcare and community settings. In 1991, Canine Assistants was founded in Milton, Georgia, to train and place working dogs with people who have physical disabilities, type 1 diabetes, seizures, or other types of special needs (Canine Assistants, 2022). These individuals receive a dog that assists them with specific needs related to their health conditions and lives with them in their homes. In 2009, Canine Assistants expanded their programming to children’s hospitals, first partnering with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Today Canine Assistants has over 80 dogs placed in children’s hospitals all over the country.  

Growth of Programs  

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA) had the first documented facility dog program, welcoming their first dog, Casper, in 2009 (Canine Assistants, 2022). Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta has grown its program exponentially since creating “Canine for Kids,” which now has 14 dogs that work in all hospital areas, including inpatient units, outpatient areas, camp programs, and staff support. Numerous children’s hospitals have added facility dogs to provide therapeutic support, comfort, and assistance in treatment goals to pediatric patients and their families, looking towards CHOA and their program for guidance (Canine Assistants, 2022).  Several children’s hospitals have created specific facility dog positions to oversee the maintenance and daily running of a facility dog program. Many of these positions require duties such as coordinating vet visits, facilitating requests for special/community events, overseeing budgeting and training, and supervising dogs and their handlers.  

An informal survey was conducted for this article with 18 child life specialists who are facility dog handlers. This survey asked participants about their clinical and managerial duties specific to being a facility dog handler. Participants overwhelmingly reported the most difficult aspect of being a handler is managing expectations with staff and having staff understand when/how to appropriately consult. Secondary to this, 25% of participants stated managing funding, supplies and scheduling for the facility dogs is challenge. However, every participant in the survey reported that having a facility dog is a very rewarding and impactful part of their job, even with all the challenges.  

As the field of animal-assisted therapy has grown, facility dogs have expanded their services to a wide variety of settings, including outside of the hospital. For example, Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center added Mac, a two-year-old golden retriever, to their child life department in 2018. Mac was trained with Duo Dogs, a nonprofit organization that specifically trains facility dogs to provide support for people in courtroom settings, forensic interviews, and school districts (Duo Dogs, n.d.). In 2020, Mac participated in over 70 forensic interviews, and it was reported the disclosure rate in cases of suspected sexual abuse was 10% higher when Mac was present (Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center, n.d.). Walsh et al.,(2018) found that in addition to reducing stress for patients during forensic interviews, facility dog presence reduced staff burnout and long-term secondary traumatic stress. Having a facility dog present during stressful events and procedures may assist in promoting job longevity, especially for child life specialists.  

With the rise of social media, many facility dog programs have created social media pages on platforms such as Instagram. These pages show highlights of their programs, provide health information, share patient experience stories, and build a digital community. These social media pages are followed by hospital staff, patients and families, and community members, allowing individuals to learn more about facility dog programming as well as donate to support the facility dog program in their workplace or community. These accounts also provide an opportunity to share accurate and developmentally appropriate information across a wide network, particularly for young adults who use Instagram more than any other social media platform to access healthcare information (Thomas et al., 2022). Social media has also connected facility dog programs across the country, creating annual events such as the secret Santa paws gift exchange, where facility dogs from different programs are assigned another program’s dog and send gifts throughout the month. In 2022, 127 dogs from 31 states participated in this event!  

As you can see, facility dog programming has evolved significantly over a short period of time. Facility dogs provide a great addition to many children’s hospitals and community settings all over the county. With the introduction of facility dogs to child life programming, child life specialists have been able to add another tool to their clinical tool belt when working with children and families.  



Canine Assistants (2022, December 7).  

Duo Dogs (n.d.).  

Facility dog: Meet Mac - Chicago Children's advocacy center. (n.d.).  

 Fine, Beck, & Ng. (2019). The state of animal-assisted interventions: Addressing the contemporary issues that will shape the future. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(20), 3997. 

Howe, R., Nicholson, S., Lafferty, A., Davies, C., Stokes, D., & Kroll, T. (2021). Animal assisted interventions in the children's hospital: Protocol for a scoping review. HRB Open Research, 3, 74.  

Schoenfeld-Tacher, R., Hellyer, P., Cheung, L., & Kogan, L. (2017). Public perceptions of service dogs, emotional support dogs, and therapy dogs. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 14(6), 642. 

Thomas, V. L., Chavez, M., Browne, E. N., & Minnis, A. M. (2020). Instagram as a tool for study engagement and community building among adolescents: A Social Media Pilot Study. DIGITAL HEALTH, 6, 205520762090454. 

 Walsh, D., Yamamoto, M., Willits, N. H., & Hart, L. A. (2018). Job-related stress in forensic interviewers of children with use of therapy dogs compared with facility dogs or no dogs. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 5.