Alexandra Ward, a second-year McGovern Medical School student, and her 3-year-old schnauzer, Griffin, are bringing more than smiles when they visit patients at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital. They are assisting Sandra Branson, Ph.D., R.N., and Thea Troetscher, R.N., on a project to document the impact of assisted therapy pets on inpatients between the ages of 7 and 18.

“The children I’ve worked with really love animals,” Ward said. “There was one case a couple of weeks ago – a little boy got randomized to the control group. Afterwards, he spent an hour with the therapy dog just talking. He was really upbeat about having company from one of our pets.”

The assisted pet therapy project began earlier this year. Ward was introduced to the project by Branson, assistant professor at UTHealth School of Nursing, after meeting Ward at a Faithful Paws event. Throughout the summer on Thursday or Friday mornings, Ward or Troetscher approached patients and their parents about participating in the study. After documenting what was needed for the study, participants who were drawn into the control group visited with the therapy pet.

“We definitely want to make sure everyone who wants a visit with the therapy dog gets an opportunity to do so,” Ward said. “They just have to wait a little longer, but they say it’s worth it.”

So far, 45 patients have been enrolled for this study. The goal is to recruit 48 patients. Many of the patients recruited for this study have had appendectomies or were involved in automobile accidents.

Elizabeth Arca was one of the first patients Ward visited on a sunny summer morning in August with Facundo, a 2-year-old Shih Tzu and her owner Isabel Abayer.

“It helps to have the dogs visit us, especially in the morning. I feel like the rest of day is going to be a good one after playing with these dogs,” Arca said. “It gives me something to look forward to while I’m waiting to go home.”

Christina Arca, Elizabeth’s mom, was also glad to spend time with Facundo and shared that her daughters take care of their own dog, a 2-year-old terrier that sleeps on their bed and waits for them at the door every day after school.

This was the second hospital stint for Arca, 12, who had symptoms of DRESS syndrome. Arca was able to meet therapy pets on her first visit as well, two Labradors named Bo and Lola.

“I just wanted to play with (Facundo),” Arca said. “I got the stuffed dog at first but then I heard tiny paws walking around, and I was so glad to see him. It really lifts your spirits up.”

For Ward, she combines two interests by assisting with this project, her passion for dogs and her interest in pediatric medicine.

“While I’m still considering residency programs, I know I want to work in pediatric medicine,” Ward said.

“Alex will be a wonderful physician in the very near future.  Her compassion, empathy, and approachability are assets to patient care.  Her ability and desire to volunteer while pursuing a rigorous medical education amazes me,” Branson said.

Now that classes have resumed, Ward is still actively participating in recruiting patients. She looks forward to other projects that are in the works such as a study that measures the impacts of cats on senior citizens in Montgomery County. Branson is the primary investigator of this study.

“I’ve had a fantastic time working on this project and I’ve developed a lot of skills that I can apply in any future research project,” Ward said. “With my schedule, it is nice to get away and work with people like Troetscher and Dr. Branson. Working with Griffin is also pretty nice.”