- Therapy Dogs Help Patients Cope with Illness
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Therapy Dogs Help Patients Cope with Illness

Lily Duncan and HABIT dogs

Fourteen-year-old Lily Duncan just got a new dog.

"His name is Winston and he's 6 months old," Susan Wallace, Lily's mother, said.

"He's trouble," Lily replied with a laugh.

Trouble or not, the Powell family's new addition wasn't out of the blue. Lily was inspired to get a dog of her own during visits with volunteer HABIT dogs while being treated for leukemia at East Tennessee Children's Hospital. Since her diagnosis in September 2013, she has looked forward to spending time with the four-legged friends.

"They light up the room," she said. "They always make you feel better no matter what."

Twelve HABIT dogs visit Children's Hospital patients' rooms each week to provide friendship and comfort. HABIT is a community group of volunteers working together to explore the bond between humans and animals. The program began at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine in 1986. HABIT dogs and their owners have been visiting Children's Hospital patients since 1988.

Anna Taylor, child life specialist, can tell how much the dogs mean to the patients. "When a HABIT dog comes into a room, the whole focus is shifted onto the dog and how excited the patients are," she said. "They look forward to which dogs they'll get to see on which days."

Sometimes the patients even get up for a walk around the halls with their new friends. "It's a way to get them up and moving while they're in the hospital," Taylor said.

For Lily, the HABIT dogs have been there during some of her most trying visits. Susan explained, "One time Lily wasn't taking visitors because her head ached so terribly. The room was dark and quiet, but she decided to let one of the dogs in. He just came around to the side of her bed, laid his head on her lap and let her pet him. They really make a huge difference in this environment."

Beyond adopting a dog of her own, Lily's connection to the HABIT dogs has influenced her long-term goals. "I want to come back as a survivor and bring a therapy dog," she said. "I want to tell people that it's OK. If I can get through it, you can, too."

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