Stanford Medicine Newsletter Updates For the Local Community

Love on a leash

Stanford’s canine health-care workers help lift patient spirits

PAWS veteran Rita, with her handler, Robert Higa (right), stop for a visit with Stanford Hospital patient Norma Jean Jackson.


As Rita moves confidently through the hallways of Stanford Hospital, her official badge swings back and forth with each step. There’s no MD after her name, but her skills as a healer could justify it. When Rita visits a patient, the atmosphere instantly brightens.

“Oh, here you go, pretty girl,” cooed Stella, a patient in the intermediate cardiac care unit. “What a good dog!”

For more than a decade, dogs like Rita and her animal colleagues in the Pet Assisted Wellness at Stanford program (PAWS) have padded their way into the hearts of patients and staff alike during their weekly therapeutic visits at Stanford and twice-monthly visits to Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital.

During those moments when the warmth of a black Labrador or corgi or golden retriever radiates in a patient room, it’s much easier to forget the tangle of plastic tubing, the beeping of monitors and the reality of illness. “It’s win, win, win all the way around when you see the connection dogs can make,” said Rita’s owner and handler, Robert Higa. “It’s so easy and effortless. You can really see the change you can bring about with a dog.”

The program makes an important contribution to getting patients well and out of the hospital, said Barbara Ralston, vice president for guest services and international medicine at Stanford Hospital & Clinics. “It helps normalize their experience. People who have pets really miss them. We can’t let their pets in, but we have surrogates for them,” she said.

Sessions with each patient last between five and 10 minutes. The PAWS visits are directed first at units where patients have longer stays, when missing home can sometimes lead to depression. Hospital staff members enjoy the event, too, and requests for visits outweigh the program’s ability to fulfill them.

The introduction of dogs, cats and sometimes rabbits into a hospital environment is not simple, said program coordinator Jesse Rodriguez. The PAWS animals are as antiseptically clean as possible. At no time are the dogs off leash. Nor do they go to units where patients are on immunosuppressant medications.

Just as crucial is temperament—and that includes obedience: Manners in a hospital must be perfect. Black Labradors and golden Labradors are regular members of the team, but the current PAWS group also includes a Doberman pinscher, a Scottish terrier, a collie, a smooth fox terrier, a Leonberger and a Wheaten terrier.

Each dog is highly trained and has passed the strenuous certification tests created by the Delta Society, which runs training and testing programs for service animals and their handlers.

“It’s about demeanor,” Rodriguez said. “It’s about their willingness and acceptance of multiple touching and an environment of unpredictability. They must be very warm and welcoming to any-body touching them.”

Rita, a border collie-Australian shepherd-English setter mix, is one of the better-known dogs in the program. Not only has she been on the team for six years, but her repertoire of tricks is breathtak-ing. She can’t show off her ability to catch a Frisbee or to retrieve baseballs from the San Francisco Bay—she’s an ace at both—but she does do a gone-in-an-instant trick with a treat balanced on her nose.

Rita also happens to be a veteran as a patient. Higa found her at a shelter, left there by owners who couldn’t cover the cost of her badly broken front leg, which was ultimately mended with multiple pins. She showed an immediate aptitude for learning and possessed a spirit wide open to interactions with humans. Now she knows 50 commands, and, said Higa, to Rita “every new person is a good thing.”

For more information about the PAWS program, visit and click on Guest Services in the left-hand menu.

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