Inspiring T.A.I.L.S. at Arkansas Children’s Hospital
Whether it’s assisting in first responder work, being a welcome addition to a family, or providing therapy services to patients in hospitals, dogs can bring positive experiences to so many. Arkansas Children’s hospital provides people with many different opportunities to volunteer, and all of its volunteer programs are centered around making sure kids and their families are well taken care of during their time in ACH’s care. One such program – T.A.I.L.S., which stands for Therapeutic Animal Intervention Lifts Spirits – is one that provides patients and their families the opportunity to play and interact with trained certified therapy dogs.
Erica Phillips, executive director of volunteer engagement at Arkansas Children’s, is passionate about all volunteer opportunities at the hospital, including the T.A.I.L.S. program. According to Phillips, ACH currently has 31 Pet Partner teams that volunteer.
“The dogs and their handlers really bring so much joy to the patients and the families of patients at Arkansas Children’s Hospital,” Phillips says.
There are a number of ways that the therapy dogs and their handlers can get involved with providing positive experiences for the patients at ACH. For patients who are spending several nights in the hospital, a therapy dog can come visit. According to Phillips, some patients feel better by just having a therapy dog sit on their bed or in their room. Patients can talk to, pet and interact with the therapy dogs.
“Some patients just want to observe the dogs; some want to watch the dogs do tricks. Really, it can just help calm nerves and make kids and their families feel more comfortable,” Phillips explains.
While the Pet Partner teams spend time in the hospitals, they also go on clinic visits. Phillips said the teams can go and sit in the waiting rooms, allowing patients and family members the opportunity to walk into their appointments feeling less anxious.
“For our patients who are staying in the hospital we have the playroom, Camp Wannaplay, where patients can come in and just love-on, interact and play with the dog,” Phillips says.
The therapy dogs serve as stress relief to the staff at ACH as well. According to Phillips, during the pandemic, teams have come in to visit with staff, nurses and providers for emotional rest. Phillips said that this proved to be really helpful to employees while times were uncertain.
T.A.I.L.S. dogs are certified therapy dogs – not emotional support animals – that come from Central Arkansas Pet Partners. The dogs and their handlers are well versed in educational training, skill sets and competency. The most important thing in qualifying to be part of the T.A.I.L.S. program is that the team is certified.
“Safety is our number one priority. We make sure that all of our Pet Partners teams are top-notch, with good hygiene and up to date on flea and tick prevention, as well as bathed frequently,” Phillips says.
Of course, volunteering is rewarding in general, Phillips adds. Mim Hundley and her dog, Homer, volunteer as a Pet Partners team at ACH, where they enjoy the time they spend brightening up other people’s days.
Hundley, like many other handlers, knew for a while that she wanted to train a therapy dog one day. In her final year before retirement, a dog who had journeyed a long distance, made his way into her life – and the rest is history.
“This is something I had wanted to do for over ten years, and a year before I retired, I was able to start training Homer,” Hundley says. “I had some friends find him in a Lowe’s parking lot in Greenville, Mississippi, and they picked him up. I met him and immediately thought he would be a good therapy dog.”
Homer, upon initial observation, was extraordinarily calm, but eventually became more active as he ate more and grew. Hundley explained that Homer was underweight when they first became acquainted, but after plenty cups of dog food a day, he finally reached the healthy size he was meant to be.
“Homer is the best. He gets along with everybody and he’s super friendly with other dogs too,” Hundley says.
Hundley and Homer have been a Pet Partners team since 2015 and originally started at the VA Hospital in North Little Rock. Hundley said that she and Homer have loved every bit of getting to volunteer as a Pet Partners team.
“I was so excited to get to volunteer at ACH and I love what we get to do as volunteers,” Hundley says.
Homer and Hundley test every two years to make sure they are meeting necessary standards as a team. According to Hudnley, therapy dogs are evaluated to make sure that they are gentle and friendly, with good manners and temperament.
Pet Partners of Central Arkansas works to register nine different species to be certified therapy animals, including dogs, cats, horses and donkeys, guinea pigs, rabbits, domestic rats, birds, miniature pigs and llamas and alpacas. According to Pet Partners, there are specific limitations to registering a pet such as age, length of time in the home and more, which can be found on its website, petpartners.org.
To become a Pet Partners team in Central Arkansas, there are three steps handlers and animals must take. The first step is the handler’s workshop, which is required for the handler either in-person or online. The second step is optional, but provides practice for handlers being evaluated with their animal. The third and final step is an evaluation. Pet Partners of Central Arkansas sponsors Handler Workshops and Pet Partners Evaluations four times every year, and also offers practice sessions for teams prior to evaluation. For more information regarding Pet Partners of Central Arkansas, visit centralarkansaspetpartners.org.
As far as Phillips and the work she does overseeing volunteer efforts for ACH, she believes that volunteer work is rewarding for all parties involved.
“Our organization does such a great job in providing good experiences for patients and families. We do fun things to make the hospital experience as good as possible, and T.A.I.L.S. is a big part of that,” Phillips says, adding that kids are always delighted when they see the therapy dogs.
Phillips explained that many of the patients and their families experience a lot of really emotional times throughout treatment, meaning every moment counts.
“I love the fact that volunteers get to provide some joy in important and critical moments, because moments matter. When there’s a lot going on, the work we do can be part of moments that really matter,” Phillips says.
No matter what capacity in which volunteers are involved with ACH, Phillips said all of their volunteers make a huge difference.
“Whether people have time to [donate], or [lend] skills or special talents, there is a way for everyone to get involved with volunteering at ACH,” Phillips says. “We have “princesses” and musicians come in, we have people who greet patients in the waiting room, we have something for everyone.”
Phillips said that she loves to have conversations with others on how they can get involved with ACH. For those interested in volunteering in any aspect, visit archildrens.org/support-us/volunteer-engagement/volunteer-at-arkansas-childrens-hospital.
SPONSORED BY LAKE HAMILTON & HOT SPRINGS ANIMAL HOSPITALS