- This story originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of COMO Magazine.
Trotting down the halls of the University of Missouri Children’s Hospital, Link the therapy dog spreads joy and smiles to both patients and staff alike, a role he has filled as an essential member of the hospital’s Child Life staff for four and a half years.
“The longer he has been here he’s more known and the more he’s just recognized. I get stopped a lot, ” says Corinne Joplin, Link’s handler and a Child Life specialist. She has been with the hospital for 13 years and is the only handler Link has known.
“There’s just a lot of smiles no matter where you go when you have him with you,” she says.
The Magic of Dogs
Every afternoon, Link gets to work visiting patients in various departments, including oncology, the pediatric intensive care unit, hematology, and sometimes even the emergency room — as long as there is no respiratory illness present. (Link’s visits are sometimes limited due to infection control within the hospital. A child’s care team will keep patients informed if that happens.) Studies show that dogs help lower blood pressure and encourage a more relaxed disposition, and Link is a testament to that understanding by helping ease anxiety among patients.
“For those kids that are having a hard time sometimes it’s just a way to kind of break down that barrier and help them relax a little bit and start talking,” Corinne says. “For lots of kids, it just brightens up their day.”
Link can also help children with mobility issues. There is sometimes a feeling of shame associated with being sick or unable to move how one wants, but Link provides a calm, nonjudgmental presence that helps patients get the courage to overcome those feelings and make progress in their treatment. As a result of his hard work and comfort-ready presence, Link has earned himself a little bit of a reputation and might even be considered a celebrity.
“We have a lot of kids that come here for spinal surgery with Dr. Hoernschemeyer and some of these kids travel really far. There’s a Facebook group they connect in,” Connie explains with a laugh. “And they all know about Link. So they inevitably always ask about seeing Link, which is pretty cute.”
Supporting the Staff
With paws that reach across more than just patients, Link is an essential team player who even helps the staff when there are tough days. It’s no secret that working in a hospital is an emotionally taxing job, but Link is able to provide comfort for those providing care.
“If there is a death of a kiddo, sometimes we try to wander up to that unit and just give the staff a little extra love,” Corinne adds. “We have something called the ‘For You Team’ here at the hospital where we debrief after the death of the patient and when possible, we try to include Link in that because again, it’s just that nonjudgmental support.”
Where did Link Come from?
Link comes from Duo Dogs, an organization based in St. Louis. Duo Dogs trains canines to become assistance dogs, facility dogs (like Link), or touch therapy dogs. Once dogs are fully trained, their handlers come and participate in a week of training on how to be a handler. Dogs go through a recertification process once a year.
Corinne also makes sure Link is primped and presentable. “We have to brush his hair every day,” she says. “We give him a quick once-over to make sure there’s no injuries and just to make sure he’s healthy.”
Corinne hopes that the program will continue to grow and be funded. If a patient at Missouri Children’s Hospital would like to request a visit from Link, they can mention it to their nurse, doctor, or child life specialist.