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A blind therapy dog befriends kids in the hospital

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 7/24/2017 Liv Osby
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As hard as the staff at Shriners Hospital for Children works to make life easier for their charges, waiting to see a doctor can be nerve-wracking, treatments can be painful and recovering from surgery can be hard.

But as soon as Harley rounds the corner, once glum and frightened faces beam. Tiny hands reach out to pet her. And there are giggles as she licks their cheeks.

Like any therapy dog, Harley can lighten the load of a debilitating condition.

But the yellow lab with the smiling face brings something special to the mix. She is blind.

And that creates a special bond between her and these kids in braces and wheelchairs.

“Oh my gosh, she’s the sweetest dog ever,” gushed Maryann Jarnagin after Harley visited her in her hospital bed, where she was resting from scoliosis surgery.

“It’s amazing that without any eyes she can do that,” said the 16-year-old Charleston girl. “It does show that no matter what, you can get through anything.”

Harley, a yellow lab who lost her eyes to glaucoma, visits with Maryann Jarnagin, 16, at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Greenville on Thursday, July 13, 2017. © LAUREN PETRACCA/The Greenville News Harley, a yellow lab who lost her eyes to glaucoma, visits with Maryann Jarnagin, 16, at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Greenville on Thursday, July 13, 2017. Many Shriners patients are in isolation or on bed rest, making it difficult to interact with others, said child life specialist Elaine Hardin. That can mean focusing on what they can’t do instead of what they can do. But Harley allows them to interact with someone else, and makes them realize that they don’t have to be absolutely perfect.

“They all feel like if she can do it, I can do it,” said Harley’s owner Rita Harrell. “She has overcome her obstacles and look how happy she is and here she is making us happy.

“So there’s hope for everybody.”

Blind overnight

It was about five years ago, when Harley was 5, that she developed glaucoma, Harrell told The Greenville News. While dogs with the condition usually lose their sight gradually, Harley was blind almost overnight and they have no idea why, she said. 

Because glaucoma is caused by a build-up of pressure inside the eye, it’s painful. They tried drops for a few months to relieve the pressure, but it kept increasing.

Finally, the vet said Harley’s eyes should be removed. Harrell struggled with the idea of doing something so final in case a new treatment came along, but eventually relented.

“And when she came home after she had her eyes removed, she was like a puppy,” Harrell said, realizing that her pain was gone. “And ever since, she’s always been like this. Her tail’s always wagging. She’s happy all the time.

“That’s always a big thing people notice,” she added. “They’ll say, ‘She looks like she’s smiling all the time.’ ”

Harley adjusted to being blind in a couple of months. She knows where all the gates and fences are around the Harrell's Fountain Inn farm. She knows the location of the blueberry bushes, the pear trees and the pond. And she can find her way around the house, often going in one door and out another.

Once, when Harrell’s husband was taking the dogs for a walk, Harley was so slow he told her to stay put and he’d get her on the way back. But when he returned, he found her sitting on the front porch. She’d just walked back by herself.

Harrell decided to go into pet therapy when she saw a spot about Paws2Care, a volunteer group for therapy dogs. She signed up, got the training with Harley, and began visiting hospitals. Which is where her dog thrives most.

“Really young kids will say, ‘Why are her eyes closed? Is she going to open them? Can she see?’ ” Harrell said. “I say, 'No, she’s blind. She doesn’t have any eyes.' They just don’t get the concept that she does all these things with them and if she can’t see, how can she do all those things?”

'Really happy'

Seven-year-old Brandon Noblitt from Travelers Rest spends a lot of time at Shriners, which provides specialty orthopedic care for children regardless of ability to pay.

Last year, he caught a common cold, which led to acute flaccid myelitis, a rare condition that afflicts fewer than 100 people a year, his father, Brian, said. It left his right side paralyzed so he requires a wheelchair.

Brandon's favorite day at the hospital is when the therapy dogs are there.

“She’s a sweet dog,” said Brandon, petting the pup and acknowledging that he’d never seen a blind therapy dog before.

“It’s cool, but it’s sad,” he said. “She’s really happy though. And she has a super good sense of smell.”

Indeed, during a visit last week Harley sniffed out a single Cheerio dropped by another therapy dog owner, as well as the receptionist's lunch box, which hid a bacon sandwich.

“Dogs have a special energy and just make you feel better,” said Maya Lewis, a 17-year-old from Chapel Hill recovering from scoliosis surgery who has raised a service dog.

“She’s super cute,” she said, smiling as she rubbed Harley’s ears. “Therapy dogs are just as important as service ones.”

Little 1-year-old Peyton Gillespie couldn’t get enough of Harley, toddling after her as she left his exam room.

Even the staff is as happy to see her as the children are.

“Hey Harley,” said one nurse, kneeling down to give the pooch a hug. “I need some therapy.”

Filling a space

Research shows that petting or playing with dogs lowers blood pressure, heart rate and reduces anxiety, Hardin said. And therapy dogs in general quickly adapt to patient's needs, whether it’s just laying on the bed with a sick child or doing a trick. 

“They have a way of finding people who need them and filling a space you didn’t even know you had,” she said. “Harley may be blind but she can do pretty much anything any therapy dog can do.”

She motivates the kids as well.

“Sometimes there will be a kid who doesn’t want to walk, they’re in physical therapy and they’re sore and fearful,” Hardin said. “But if you put Harley 10 feet away from that child, and tell them they can pet her, there’s not even a question of whether they’re going to walk or not.

“They forget about that. They just want to pet the dog.”

Having dogs at the hospital also normalizes the environment for children, especially those who must be there a lot, she said.

Harley’s been a therapy dog for about three years. And Harrell, who works full-time, says it’s as much of a treat for her as it is for Harley.

“It’s real rewarding when I see little kids and how happy they are,” she said, giving Harley a good scratch.

“It’s fun to be able to share her with other people. She’s such a good dog.”

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Gallery: The Honor Roll of Best Children's Hospitals 2017-18 (by U.S. News & World Report) A Photo Tour of the 2017-18 Best Children's Hospitals: Which hospitals are best for the sickest kids? The 2017-18 U.S. News <a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-hospitals/pediatric-rankings">Best Children’s Hospitals</a> rankings identify 82 hospitals with demonstrated expertise in one or more of 10 pediatric specialties. Ten hospitals earned a place on the <a href="http://health.usnews.com/health-news/best-childrens-hospitals/articles/best-childrens-hospitals-honor-roll-and-overview">Best Children's Hospitals Honor Roll</a>.<br><br>Click through the slides to view the Honor Roll hospitals. The Honor Roll of Best Children's Hospitals 2017-18


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