When Bella makes her monthly visits to Arkansas Children’s Hospital and the UAMS Medical Center, hospital staff checks her photo ID before she’s allowed in to visit with patients.
It would all seem standard procedure, except for one thing: Bella is a dog.
Her owner and handler, TJ Knight, has a badge, too, one for every hospital the pair visit. Each badge is the result of hard work and training that dates back to 2008.
“She came to me as a puppy, when my youngest daughter brought her home from a friend’s house,” Knight said.
A year later, Knight became interested in training Bella, a border collie, to be a therapy dog. The process took hours of daily training before the team could pass a 45-minute test through Pet Partners, a nationwide organization that helps evaluate therapy and service animals.
“We’re a team,” Knight said. “They don’t just look at what she can do; they look at the compatibility of the handler and the dog. Working in hospitals was always our goal.”
For the past few years, Bella and Knight have worked with hospitals through Animals Brighten Lives Everywhere, or ABLEPaws, an Arkansas nonprofit that organizes teams of volunteers across the state to bring pets into hospitals. Every first Saturday of the month, Bella and Knight make the trip from Searcy to Little Rock to visit with patients at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. They make the trip again every fourth Tuesday of the month to visit the antepartum ward for high-risk pregnancies.
After working as a medical assistant at a women’s clinic in Searcy for more than 14 years, Knight said she is very comfortable visiting with patients. Knight uses her own life experiences and a shared love of animals to help patients feel at ease.
“It’s different when you have an animal come in,” Knight said. “Doctors at Children’s will even use a visit with the dog as an incentive, saying, ‘If you work really hard in physical therapy, you can visit with the dog.’”
When she brings Bella to Children’s Hospital, the two typically set up residence in a communal playroom, where kids can take turns brushing and petting Bella as she sits on her trademark red bathmat.
“The red rug is a safe place for her,” Knight said. “Hospital floors can be cold and slick, and on the rug, she knows she’s not going to slide.”
The red rug, and the bag Knight carries it in, also signal to Bella that it’s time to go to work. At home, Bella relaxes and plays with Knight’s four other dogs.
But when Bella sees Knight bring out the work bag, “she won’t leave,” Knight said.
“When she sees us pulling up into the hospital parking lots, she knows exactly where we’re going.”
Whether it’s a group setting, a bedside visit or spending time with patients’ families in an ICU waiting room, Knight said the influence Bella has on the people they visit is obvious.
“People will talk about the dogs they have at home and how much they miss them,” Knight said. “Blood pressures drop; stress levels drop.”
Knight remembers several times that patients have cried when Bella has come into their room. Once, Bella sat near a young girl who was so sick she couldn’t stop throwing up.
“Bella sat there and wouldn’t move her head off that little girl’s leg the whole time,” Knight said.
After many months visiting hospitals, Knight said, there is very little that bothers Bella when they’re working. Though she sometimes gets upset when Knight tries to touch her paws at home, Bella doesn’t mind when small patients at Children’s touch them.
“Bella knows when it’s time to work, and her whole demeanor changes,” Knight said.
ABLEPaws volunteers work with hospitals across the state, and Knight said there are nearly always more requests for visits than there are volunteers. She encourages people interested in training their dog to be a therapy dog to get more information from Pet Partners.
“The best part of this is knowing that we’re probably leaving more joy than we’re taking with us,” Knight said. “I’ve had a lot of hobbies in my life, but this is the most addicting and rewarding.”
Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or firstname.lastname@example.org.