Rocket might seem an overly energetic name for the new service dog at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, given that the golden retriever’s go-to move is to hop onto hospital beds and flop onto children so they can pet him.
But hospital leaders said the name fits when considering the boost he has provided to the hospital and its sickest patients at their neediest times.
While the hospital offers everything from pain medications to video games and virtual reality consoles to distract children from pain and suffering, patients said there is nothing like Rocket prancing into their rooms.
A.J. Nelson endured a cruddy day at the hospital earlier this month — struggling with pain from a urinary catheter put in place after a surgery to remove a tumor from his spine — when Rocket plopped on him.
“Dogs know things,” said Nelson, 17, who smiled and pet Rocket before looking playfully into the dog’s eyes.
“ ‘I have a dog at home who looks just like you. Yes he does. Yes he does.’ ”
Rocket is part of a revolution in hospital care that is using trained pets to comfort patients.
The Georgia-based Canine Assistants agency that trained Rocket has reported growing interest from hospitals across the United States. Assistance Dogs International, a trade group representing service dog trainers, has a registry of more than 15,000 service dogs in North America, most of which help people who are blind or have limited mobility.
The registry also lists nearly 1,000 facility dogs, assigned to hospitals or even to fire departments so they can provide comfort to victims of fires, accidents or mass casualty events.
“There’s nothing like that unconditional love from a dog,” said Karen Casto, who works with hospitals interested in obtaining dogs from Canine Assistants.
“It just gives people that moment of peace. ‘I don’t need to deal with anything else right now. I can just let this dog love me.’ ”
While the U pediatric hospital has hosted other support animals, Rocket is the first full-time facility dog that can sit with patients during uncomfortable procedures such as needle placements or blood draws.
A $250,000 donation from NutriSource pet food company, based in Perham, Minn., helped to fund the program, including a child-life specialist who works with Rocket.
The pairing seemed like fate to Anna Dressel, a child-life specialist at the U hospital, who admitted that she was encouraging her 3-year-old daughter to beg her husband to get a dog. Then came the job posting to work full-time with Rocket, and Dressel started thinking back to her father, and how their family dog comforted him during his battle with cancer.
Dogs have an emotional awareness that people don’t necessarily understand, she said. “It’s something you can’t put your finger on.”
Dressel traveled to Georgia to train with Rocket before they started rounds to see patients in early December. Together they visit children in rooms, offer motivation during walking or physical therapy exercises, and do activities with patients in the hospital’s recreation center.
Well, most of the time. On one recent afternoon, Rocket was loath to stick his paws in paint to make paw prints on paper, even if the activity was with Emmy Reeves, a 14-year-old pancreatic transplant patient at the hospital who has bonded with the dog.
Emmy’s mother, Tiffanie, said she will never forget when her daughter was too weak to sit up in her hospital bed and Rocket instinctively nuzzled against her so she could pet him.
“He just went right up next to her,” the mother said.
Training at Canine Assistants starts with physical contact between people and the dogs when they are 4-week-old puppies. Volunteers later take the dogs out to practice activities, such as riding public elevators.
Most dogs are ready for service within two years of birth, by which point the trainers have figured out whether they are better at one-on-one bonding, or could serve in hospitals where they see many people and distractions.
Rocket was named as part of a litter with an astronaut theme, and has siblings named Hubble, Asteroid and Pluto. The organization typically breeds golden retrievers, Labradors or labradoodles that are calmer by nature and have “soft” mouths that can pick things up without crushing them. Casto said there was little doubt what Rocket’s role would be.
“Not all of them want a million new friends … but I don’t think Rocket has ever met a stranger,” she said. “He loves everybody.”
Rocket was trained more to use his instincts about what patients need from him, rather than to obey common commands such as “sit” or “roll over,” Dressel said.
At night, he goes home with Dressel to her family. Rocket visits about three to eight patients each weekday, bearing a work badge with his name and face.
Dressel said she is still learning Rocket’s personality, but knows he will always look for a chance to snuggle in a hospital bed with patients.
“That was like day one,” she said, “he knew to do that.”