August 19, 2022

New facility dog joins child life team at American Family Children’s Hospital

Cola, the newest facility dog at American Family Children's Hospital, with Katie Markowski and Rachel Lodahl
Cola, the newest facility dog at American Family Children's Hospital, with child life specialists Katie Markowski and Rachel Lodahl

Madison, Wis. – In less than a year, the number of facility dogs working at American Family Children’s Hospital has doubled.

The newest canine employee is Cola, a 2-year-old male golden doodle mix from Georgia. He is professionally trained to work in healthcare settings and with a handler to provide comfort to children during their treatment processes. Cola’s first day at the American Family Children’s Hospital was Aug. 1.

Cola joins Kiko, a 3-year-old female golden doodle, who joined the child life staff in September 2021. Child life specialists are medically trained professionals who help patients and families navigate and cope with complex medical information during a stay at the hospital.

The unique child life coworkers are part of the Canine Health and Medical Pals program, known as CHAMPs, at American Family Children’s Hospital.

CHAMPs is possible because of the hospital’s partnership with Canine Assistants, a nonprofit organization in Georgia that matches dogs to hospitals. The program pairs a facility dog with a child life specialist, who is trained to be a facility dog handler, to provide customized interventions in conjunction with a coping plan for patients, according to Julie Auenson, manager, child life services, UW Health Kids.

“Cola and Kiko are the only two facility dogs in the state of Wisconsin,” she said. “We’ve already seen the great benefits of Kiko sitting with a child as they get blood drawn or have a stressful procedure, so we are thrilled Cola is joining the team.”

Cola will live with Katie Markowski, child life specialist, UW Health Kids, and come to work with her each day. Cola will work with the pediatric palliative care team at the children’s hospital. These patients often stay for an extended period, so patients will get to know him well, Markowski said.

“Palliative care can be difficult work but there is a chance for a strong and loving connection to be made during a really complicated time,” said Markowski. “We are excited that Cola will be an important part of our coping plans and interventions for patients and families.”

Kiko currently works with patients at the Diagnostic and Therapy Center at American Family Children’s Hospital, which is a combination of a few areas such as an infusion center, Sedation Clinic and radiology, according to Brianna Hampton, child life specialist, UW Health Kids, and Kiko’s handler.

“Kiko has been here for almost a year, and she is a wonderful addition to the team,” she said. “Kiko helps patients feel less stressed while they receive these treatments, and it never gets old watching her make kids smile.”

This facility dog program does not replace UW Health’s Pet Pals therapy program, which began in 1996. Pet Pals are dogs of volunteers that provide comfort and cuddle time during a patient visit in a group setting, two times a week for a short amount of time. Facility dogs are specifically trained and work a full 40 hours a week and are an intentional part of the child life team with very specific intervention and coping plans.

Pet Pals is currently on hold due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The CHAMPs program is funded entirely through philanthropic donations. Each dog has an individual sponsor. Cola is sponsored by the Comer Family Foundation. This program also includes a partnership with the UW Veterinary Clinic, which will take care of the dog’s medical and infection control needs.

Like any new employee, Cola is getting used to his role and it will take some time for him to get acclimated. He began learning in August and should be going into more patient rooms this fall.