Health & Medicine

Four-legged friend named Huggie helps young patients cope at UC Davis Cancer Center

Meet Huggie, who helps child cancer patients at UC Davis Health

A 2-year-old Labrador-golden retriever mix is the newest team member at UC Davis Health, helping reduce stress for pediatric cancer patients.
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A 2-year-old Labrador-golden retriever mix is the newest team member at UC Davis Health, helping reduce stress for pediatric cancer patients.

For young patients at the UC Davis Cancer Center, Huggie is here to help.

The 2-year-old Labrador-golden retriever mix is the newest addition to the cancer center's team and UC Davis Health's first facility dog.

The pup works Monday through Friday at the Comprehensive Cancer Center to help "reduce any fear, stress, anxiety or pain" pediatric patients or their families may be experiencing, according to a press release from UC Davis Health.

Huggie underwent basic training until he was 18 months old. He then went to the nonprofit organization Canine Companions for Independence, where his intensive training consisted of learning more than 40 commands, in addition to obedience training and socialization. According to the press release, only one in four puppies meets the requirements necessary to become a facility dog.

Certified child life specialist Jenny Belke, who is also Huggie's foster mom, said that dogs like Huggie trained by Canine Companions are not "therapy dogs" and should be referred to as "facility dogs."

"They do provide a therapeutic presence," Belke said. "But they do so much more."

According to Belke, Canine Companions gave Huggie to the center for free. Training never ends for service dogs, and the overall cost for lifelong training is estimated at around $50,000.

As a foster mom, Belke trims Huggie's nails once or twice each day, brushes his teeth every day, works out with him for at least an hour a day and continuously trains him. In her role as a child life specialist, Belke also helps kids who come into the Comprehensive Cancer Center understand what is going on.

"It's distracting them from what's going on (and) making sure that they have a little fun when they're here," Belkie said. "And Huggie is part of that."

Throughout the week, Huggie sits on the laps of patients to distract them from needles and cuddles with patients while they rest. Kids also play fetch and take Huggie for walks up and down the hallways and brush him. And yes, he can give hugs by putting one paw on either shoulder.

There were strict requirements for Huggie to begin working at the center. These include constant supervision by a UC Davis Health official, regular check ups with doctors and regular washings. Additionally, every pediatric patient needs approval from a parent or guardian before interacting with Huggie. Belke said some patients who first said no have since met Huggie and changed their minds.

And Belke said she has already seen a huge difference in patients after interactions with Huggie. One teenager who was unhappy while receiving treatment appeared more at ease with Huggie's presence and put a hand on the dog's head during treatment.

In addition to the pediatric patients, Belke said everyone who walks through the doors of the Comprehensive Cancer Center can interact with Huggie. One mom who was particularly distressed was able to open up while brushing him.

"He's really there for everybody," Belke said.

Other child life specialists at the Comprehensive Cancer Center have signed up to serve as foster parents, and there are plans to add three or four more dogs to provide pediatric patient care and support.