WOODSTOCK — Three-year-old Charlie Ellis was in no mood to cooperate on a recent morning at Shenandoah Memorial Hospital.
“No, no, no,” she repeated to every available option, whether it involved playing or eating or sipping from a juice box.
But her cries turned to laughter when she saw 2-year-old facility dog Nevada push some lights on a wall to make them glow yellow or red.
“What should he do now?” asked Jennifer Dickson, pediatric occupational therapist. “Should he carry a bucket?”
Dickson handed a plastic bucket to the Labrador-golden mix, who gamely held it while Charlie chose from various rubber frogs that Dickson should place in the bucket.
Soon enough, Charlie, who had been so cautious about approaching Nevada, was feeding him peanut butter from a spoon.
“Yum, yum, yum, yum,” she recited between giggles.
Charlie and her mom, Amber Ellis, have been coming to therapy sessions at the Valley Health’s Outpatient Rehabilitation building on the Woodstock campus for four to five months. This week was their second session with Nevada, and so far, Ellis said, it’s been going well.
“It’s good. It’s exciting,” she said, adding that therapy in general has been really good for her daughter.
Charlie has had difficulty with spatial awareness, Ellis said, and the sessions have been teaching her daughter to be more comfortable with various textures of food and objects, and movements around her that she can’t always control.
Playground swings were a problem, her mother said. Charlie also doesn’t eat much, since she doesn’t like it when food gets on her hands or face.
“It’s a sensory processing issue,” Ellis said, as Charlie allowed Dickson to rustle her around on a beanbag chair and tip her over to shrieks of laughter.
A particular milestone happened when Charlie climbed through a canvas tunnel this week, while Nevada patrolled the outside “looking” for her.
“It’s awesome to be able to see her do that,” Ellis said. “Going through that is a huge for her.”
Nevada is also helping Charlie learn to trust animals, since her mother said her experience so far with cats and dogs has not been favorable.
Nevada came to Valley Health three weeks ago from Canine Companions for Independence in Long Island, New York. Established in 1975, it’s the largest nonprofit provider of assistance dogs in the U.S.
Dickson traveled to Long Island for a two-week intensive training program to become a handler, learning how to work with Nevada and learn the commands he knew.
There, she worked with 10 dogs to see which one bonded with her the most.
“The dog pretty much chooses you,” she said.
Nevada was more sensitive than the others, she said. He’s more intuitive to emotions and feels them more acutely.
“[He gets] a little overwhelmed when the kids are crying,” Dickson said.
At first, he would stick by Dickson’s side if he was unsure of a situation, but now she said he’s becoming more secure in his job.
Similar to a therapy dog, Nevada’s role as facility dog is to serve hospital patients rather than stick with one person, said Dickson.
In addition to Charlie, he’s been working with children who have trouble walking and need someone to lean on.
“He’s the first facility dog for all of Valley Health,” Dickson said, and he’s been “phenomenal.”
Before Nevada came to Virginia, Dickson was splitting her time between Woodstock and Winchester, working with Winchester Medical Center’s animal-assisted program.
The program in Woodstock is an extension of Valley Health’s core values, which include innovation, said Kyla Sine, director of rehabilitation and fitness for Shenandoah Memorial Hospital.
Bringing the program to Shenandoah County further enhances “the quality care we give to our patients,” she said.
“This was truly a collaborative effort by our SMH teammates and hospital leadership.”
In addition to Dickson’s training, Sine said months of planning and preparation went into preparing for Nevada’s arrival. Valley Health received Nevada for free, Dickson said, but the application process lasted more than a year.
Nevada works full-time at Shenandoah Memorial and mostly sticks to the pediatric unit unless there’s a cancellation or a patient who doesn’t want to work with dogs. If that happens, he’ll help out elsewhere, such as the rehab gym.
There, he worked with a patient who sat on a balance ball while tossing a ball for him to chase. He helped another patient by lying on the man’s arm to give him leverage for his stretching routine.
The dog’s addition to the staff (complete with his own security badge) led to an overhaul of policy procedures, Dickson said. Nevada’s patients now have a variety of permission slips to sign, and the facility has fitted rooms with green and red paw prints to alert the cleaning staff of any special guidelines.
Each day at lunchtime, Nevada visits with people in the cafeteria and knows to expect his ice cube treat.
When he’s not working, he chills in Dickson’s office, but she said he’s happiest when he’s with people.
“If he’s not around people, he’ll bark at me,” she said.
Still new to his job, Nevada has already hinted at his potential in two standout moments that Dickson recalled this week.
One patient with cerebral palsy played hide-and-seek with Nevada, using a scooter to roll herself around the gym floor and look for him.
Another patient, who has mental health issues and is prone to violent outbursts, simply lay beside Nevada, experiencing a sense of relaxation that Dickson called “remarkable.”
The patient seemed at peace, she recalled, “and the dog understood, and it was OK.”
Though more sensitive than most, Nevada doesn’t scare easily, Dickson said.
“He’s been awesome, he really has. I’m so thankful.”