CHICAGO — You've probably heard of therapy dogs— trained to provide comfort and support. But what about facility dogs? They are specially bred and trained to work full-time in a facility under the care and supervision of a staff member.
“She gets to come to work every day with me. As long as I'm at work, Tyra's at work,” said Megan Hartnett, a certified child life specialist at Rush University Medical Center. “She's been trained all of her life to provide a service to others.”
Tyra is a two-year-old Labrador Retriever who’s recently come to work in the pediatric ICU at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. She’s part of a new facility dog program that was made possible by a grant from the Dunkin’ Joy in Childhood Foundation’s Dogs for Joy Program.
“She gets to see patients and she provides comfort and support like a therapy dog, but she is different than a therapy dog,” said Hartnett.
As a service dog, Tyra has an intervention and a goal that's attached to any patient she sees.
It took 18 months of professional training for Tyra to learn about 40 commands.
“If a patient's having a hard time with getting motivated to ambulate after a surgery, we can go with physical therapy and be motivations for the patient to get up and to walk in the hallways,” said Hartnett.
She can also open and close doors and drawers, press elevator buttons, turn lights on and off, and retrieve objects.
“One of the things that we look for in our facility dogs is what role are they going to be playing,” said Adrena Spreacker, who serves as a regional training manager for Canine Companions.
The nonprofit has been training service animals for nearly 50 years.
“They all have strengths, and they all have weaknesses,” said Spreacker. “So, we look at those and really decide at that point, where would this dog's strengths be best used?”
The training starts early. At eight weeks of age, the puppies, Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers or mixes, are house-broken by volunteer families.
After they go back to one of six training centers for 18 months, they get paired up with a staff member at the facility where they will eventually work.
“We trained for about eight hours Monday through Friday, and then we graduated as a team together. So, it was a lot of learning all in one go,” said Hartnett.
Tyra lives and works with her staff partner. When she’s on the clock, she wears a blue vest as her work uniform.
“As we get home and I take off her vest, she gets a little bit more puppy-like and a little bit more energetic for at least 5 minutes or so. And then she's like, 'OK, I'm done.”