The newest hire at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital arrived this fall straight out of a prestigious training program. He doesn’t talk much, but patients adore him and he happily works for kibble.
Meet Pilot, a 2-year-old black Lab/Golden Retriever mix and the hospital’s second facility dog.
Children’s Memorial Hermann has had one canine on its workforce since 2019. Dexter, a Golden Retriever/Labrador mix and the hospital’s first facility dog, clocks in every weekday and performs like the qualified professional he is – comforting, encouraging and motivating young patients to meet their goals.
Dexter has been so in-demand for the past two years, however, that Children’s Memorial Hermann has brought in a second dog to share the workload.
Pilot arrived in September, fresh out of a two-year training program through Canine Companions, a national non-profit that trains assistance dogs.
Like Dexter, Pilot has a number of responsibilities – making young patients feel more comfortable in the hospital, serving as a motivator to help them achieve their goals, and distracting them during procedures or episodes of pain.
Pilot is not a therapy dog; he has undergone extensive training to interact with patients on specific, individual goals. He follows about 40 commands that help him interact with patients and their families. Pilot can escort patients in the hallways or join a child for some fun in the playroom. He can encourage a youngster to complete activities for physical therapy, or help calm a frightened young patient before surgery.
Renee Lee, a Certified Child Life Specialist, received special training to be Pilot’s handler. Pilot lives with Lee, her husband and their two smaller dogs, and he commutes to and from work with her every day.
Since her canine colleague arrived, Lee has learned that being Pilot’s handler is like being a celebrity’s manager. She certainly can’t slip through the hallways unnoticed anymore.
“The first day I walked in with Pilot, immediately heads were turning,” she said. “‘Pilot’s here!’ ‘That’s the new dog! Look at him!’” After two years with Dexter, though, Lee’s colleagues know the ropes: They shouldn’t pet Pilot, give him treats or otherwise distract him from his job – at least, not while he’s on the clock. He is, after all, a working dog.
Pilot will spend most of his time on the eighth floor at Children’s Memorial Hermann, in the Roger & Debbie Clemens Pediatric Wing. Children in this wing require hospitalization, but their conditions are not life-threatening. Pilot can help these patients work on their health goals so they can regain their strength and go home.
Many of these patients need to walk and move around to recover from surgery. They often need physical or occupational therapy, and ordinarily, it might be hard to find motivation to do the work. But Pilot changes the equation, Lee said. “They’ll say, ‘I’ll get up for my walks if Pilot comes and walks with me.’”
Recently, Lee said, one of her patients didn’t feel like getting out of bed to play. But then Pilot and Lee came in with a tea party set. “I put a couple of bits of kibble on a plate,” Lee said, and the patient was intrigued enough to join the fun. “She got out of bed so she could have a tea party with Pilot.”
Pilot helps break the ice, and he encourages patients to let their guard down. In her work, Lee said, building trust with a child is crucial – and “when you bring a dog in, trust is almost immediately earned.”
Sometimes, young children will talk to Pilot about the feelings they aren’t willing to share with an adult. And Lee will talk right back to them, using a special “Pilot” voice she slips into with ease.
Pilot can always sit still, follow commands and be gentle with patients. “But when I take the leash off and say ‘release,’ he immediately goes for the toy bin,” Lee said. When they get home in the evening, she’ll remove his work vest and Pilot is immediately ready to play. “He’ll come back with three toys in his mouth,” Lee said. “He is all dog.”
“Pilot has a very different personality from Dexter,” said Certified Child Life Specialist Christy Lange, who’s been Dexter’s handler since he arrived in 2019. While Dexter and Pilot have the same training and skills, she said, they approach the job in their own ways. “They use their different personalities to achieve the same goal.”
Dexter is more mellow and laid-back, but he’s finding Pilot’s rambunctious energy to be infectious. Likewise, Pilot has taken notes from Dexter on how to be quiet and restful when that’s what the situation requires.
The two facility dogs usually work separately. But sometimes, their worlds collide. Early on in Pilot’s career at Children’s Memorial Hermann, Lee was walking him down a hallway when she saw Lange approaching with Dexter, who was escorting a very young patient.
The tot looked at Pilot, then back at Dexter. Then his eyes lit up with joy as he cried out, “It’s another FLOOF!”
Being the second “floof” at Children’s Memorial Hermann is a big job, but Pilot is proving he’s up to it. As Lee strives to make a difference in the lives of the hospital’s young patients, Pilot is right by her side – helping the way only a Very Good Boy can.
To keep up with Pilot and Dexter at work, follow Children’s Memorial Hermann on Instagram at @childrensmemorialhermann. To see them having off-duty fun, follow Dexter (@dexintex) and Pilot (@pilotunleashed) on their own Instagram accounts.