A furry friend now helps support patients at the Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain (MIDB).
Three-year-old golden retriever-lab mix Jersey has become a familiar presence at the clinic and research center.
She works with patients alongside child life specialist Cala Hefferan.
“They’re very excited to see her,” Hefferan said.
The facility focuses on childhood brain and behavioral development, so patients may have autism, anxiety or depression, or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. They support infants through young adults.
Jersey helps with the transition when patients arrive.
“They’re able to transition well, they’re able to engage with their appointment,” Hefferan said. “Really relieve some of that stress and anxiety.”
Jersey is also trained to do medical play, which helps children understand what is going to happen during a procedure.
“The blood pressure cuff, we actually hook it up to a machine and kids can see what it’s like for Jersey to have his blood pressure taken,” Hefferan said. “And then make a coping plan for what we’re going to do when they get their blood pressure taken.”
Patients are able to walk through the steps of a blood test, going as far as putting a muzzle on Jersey and wiping her paw with an alcohol wipe. She has also been trained to use the practice MRI machine to help ease the patient’s fears.
Can Do Canines has been training Jersey since she was a puppy. Her sweet demeanor is one of the reasons why she was matched with this program.
MIDB opened in 2021 as a first-of-its-kind facility in Minnesota. Researchers are working to better understand conditions like autism alongside care teams who can apply these new discoveries.
It is happening at a time when diagnoses with autism spectrum disorders are increasing nationwide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 34 children in Minnesota were identified with autism in 2020.
“A lot of kids with autism, and actually a lot of kids with different disabilities, they have a lot of anxiety about health care in particular,” said Ellie Wilson, the executive director of the Autism Society of Minnesota. “It’s not just about how medical care can be scary, because being sick can be scary, it’s also about the unknown of being in a new place. It’s about the sights and sounds being really different, and it’s just generally an environment we don’t spend a lot of time in.”
She explained that there has been increasing interest in creating more sensory-friendly environments in the healthcare system.
“One of the groups that ask us the most for training is clinical care providers, and it’s not just big hospitals, sometimes it’s smaller outpatient clinics or private practices,” Wilson said.
Wilson noted that service dogs can play an important role in making children comfortable.
At MIDB, Hefferan sees Jersey’s calming demeanor already making a difference.
“I think you can really see the benefits, not only for the patients and families, but also for the staff,” Hefferan said. “People feel really welcome when they walk in the door here, and that’s something that’s pretty good to have.”