It’s a Wednesday afternoon on Winchester 1, the Children’s Psychiatric Inpatient Unit at the Yale New Haven Hospital (YNHH). A young boy with limited verbal skills is brushing a large black dog and talking to its owner and a recreational therapist.
“My baby,” the patient repeats between brushing the dog and kissing him. “Bleu my baby.”
Every week, the greying snout and ever-wagging tail of Bleu (pronounced ‘blue’) wiggle into Winnie-1, led by Marian Savio his handler. A large black lab-mastiff mix with a calm sociability, he approaches each person systematically, on a mission to make everyone he sees smile.
When describing her ninety minute drive from Long Island, Savio said Bleu loves the car, and looks forward to seeing the kids. A moment later she adds it is fun for her, too. “I used to be a teacher in a psych ward,” she said, “This helps me get my kid fix.”
Bleu gained experience with kids through the Mutt-i-gres Curriculum, a program developed by Matia Finn-Stevenson, Director of School of the 21st Century and the Mutt-i-grees Initiative at the Yale Child Study Center, with the Pet Savers Foundation and the North Shore Animal League America. Along with Marian and her husband Ben, also a former educator, Bleu is a favorite in classrooms and assemblies.
In the psych ward, Savio’s experience shows, as she seamlessly partners with the recreational therapists in the unit to engage the young boy in a deep conversation of dogs, family, and his feelings of belonging. After a final hug, Bleu goes to join a large group of children who are more typically developing. Savio begins by laying down a few simple rules for the group, and then launches into Bleu’s story.
Rescued at three years old, Bleu was not cared for in his first home. He was kept in a crate so small it rubbed his sides bald, and never got socialization or training. “He had no manners,” Savio told the children. He couldn’t walk on a leash, sit, or come. She thinks the kids in the house hit him, because he was scared of hands.
The children shout out questions. “Did they know they weren’t taking good care of him?” one boy asks. The recreational therapists take every opportunity to engage the kids about what matters – morals, personal responsibility, trust.
Pet therapy, particularly with dogs, has been growing in popularity over the past ten years. Finn-Stevenson said that the physiological benefits are well documented, in part because they are more easily measured. Two prominent effects are the activation of oxytocin, a hormone that facilitates bonding and relationships, and reductions in cortisol, which makes the kids more relaxed and better behaved.
According to Finn-Stevenson, even a quick visit from a dog has long lasting effects. Hours later children smile more, are more open to social interactions, and more receptive to learning and treatment. Therapy animals seem to have the strongest effect on children with developmental disabilities, autism, attentional problems, and those who are under stress or depressed. In other words, many of the problems faced by the children in the inpatient unit.
Most therapy dogs benefit the people they meet, but Finn-Stevenson describes Bleu as special. “He’s very responsive, not ‘over-trained.’ He’s in tune with your emotional state and is able to quickly identify children who need his help,” she said. “It’s not something that you teach a dog – it’s instinctive.”
As his visit continues, Bleu goes around the circle of kids, giving each one kisses and snuggles. He seems to know exactly how long is fair with each patient, and if they want to be licked, tickled, or just looked at. “Ahhh, he licked my face off,” a patient said, sitting back and laughing at Bleu’s wet grin.
Watching the children laugh and play with the dog, it becomes clear that Bleu appeals to deep fears and hopes in all of them. At the heart of his story is a dog whose difficult beginning prevented him from interacting with people normally. He was an outsider, scared, wanting to trust and be part of the community, but not knowing how. He got a second chance: Marian and Ben changed his life.
In addition to the challenges of living with mental and behavioral difficulties, children struggling with them are bullied at higher rates than typical children, and often face stigma along with their families as they seek treatment. It is easy to see how every child on the unit could see themselves in Bleu’s story, crated inside a label with an unfeeling world ignoring them.
They are fascinated with the sensitive training that led him from a scared, isolated, early life to the slobbery bundle of joy who loves everybody. “I don’t know anything about the history of the children we visit,” Savio said. “I share his background so that…they will see there is hope out there.”
With a nurturing environment, Bleu has grown into his true dog-self, lighting up the world by sharing himself. Which is exactly what the nurses, doctors, and therapists on Winnie-1 work towards for every child they treat.