Healing Pups was launched in 2012 by the Office of Patient Advocacy, which strives to provide systems for coordinating, investigating, and resolving patient and family grievances. 

Healing Pups crew member Dexter, a boxer handled by BMC employee Mike Hurley, pioneered this program in big ways. Following the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013, Dexter and Mike visited the SICU Family Waiting Room. Almost instantly, Dexter was greeting victims and their families as if they were his new best friends, leaving them smiling from ear to ear.

Listen in as Sheryl and Mike provide an overview of The Healing Pups Program at BMC and how this unique program was established to bring comfort and smiles to patients and families dealing with illness and trauma.

Featured Speakers:


Sheryl Katzanek & Mike Hurley

Sheryl Katzanek is the Director of Patient Advocacy at Boston Medical Center, and co-founder (if you will) of the Healing Pups program. Sheryl is also the handler to Healing Pups team member, Rylie. 

Mike Hurley is a Clinical Engineer at BMC, and also co-founder of the Healing Pups. He was handler to former Healing Pups team member (the founding member!!), Dexter.


Melanie Cole (Host): The Healing Pups program was launched in 2012 by the Office of Patient Advocacy at Boston Medical Center. This unique program was established in hopes of bringing comfort and smiles to patients and families dealing with illness and trauma. My guests today are Sheryl Katzanek. She’s the Director of Patient Advocacy at Boston Medical Center. And Mike Hurley, he’s a Clinical Engineer at Boston Medical Center, and together they are the co-founders of the Healing Pups Program. Welcome to the show guys. Let’s start with an overview of what Healing Pups is. I love the name so Sheryl, I’m going to you first. What is Healing Pups?

Sheryl Katzanek (Guest): Well, technically, Healing Pups is a therapeutic animal visitation program, and we were very determined to get the name right. We didn’t want to use the name Pet Therapy because that gave the impression that one could bring their pet into the hospital, and we all know that our pets are individually therapeutic, but you can’t bring your pets to a hospital. The program is really – we have a series -- a team of 12 dogs. The smallest is Charlie, who is a 20 pound Boston terrier. The largest is Miles, who is a 174 pound English Mastiff, and we have everything in between. Those dogs visit with patients, family members of patients, and frequently also visit with staff, really just to provide some comfort. Being in the hospital can be quite scary, people get depressed, and it’s just a way to offer our patients a release from the stresses of being a patient.

Melanie: These dogs are so cute if you look them up on the site, Meet the Healing Pups Team. They’re absolutely adorable. Mike, how did this all even come about?

Mike Hurley (Guest): It came about in – I think it was the beginning of 2013, I received a hospital-wide e-mail saying that the program was starting, and if any employees had dogs that were therapy dog material or therapy dogs – Dexter, my pup, was not a therapy dog at the time, but I knew that he could do it. I knew that he would be perfect for it. I quickly did some research, found out how to have him certified as a therapy dog, went through that process and signed up with Sheryl to bring Dexter on board. That was the Spring of 2013, and that’s how I got involved with the program.

Sheryl: I’d like to also mention Mike as being very kind. He and Dexter started their first day in the Healing Pups Program was April 11th, 2013, and as we know, the Boston Marathon bombing took place four days later on April 15th. It was their first week as what we call the dynamic duo at BMC. Mike and Dexter worked two weeks in a row, every day visiting patients, survivors, family members, and staff. It was really out of that event that we recognized the importance and the power of what these dogs could do under very traumatic circumstances, and that inspired us to grow the program.

Melanie: You just gave me chills with that description, Sheryl. Mike, how did Dexter become a therapy dog? Tell the listeners about that process.

Mike: I went online and found a site in Massachusetts – I think every state has their own requirements for therapy dogs – and I went to a website called “Dog Bones,” B-O-N-E-S. They don’t train to become therapy dogs; they just certify the dog and handler. It was a three Saturday class time, and I think I took it in Lexington. I drove on out three Saturdays, and they evaluate your relationship with your dog and make sure that you and your dog have a close enough relationship. They also do several tests to make sure that your dog is not going to jump on a patient, not going to dive bomb food on the floor, not go after tennis balls that are on the bottom of walkers [LAUGHTER], which is very difficult for a lot of the labs, but I had a boxer that was not retrieving anything. He was perfect with the tennis balls. I know I would fly through that. It was more – they evaluate to make sure that you’re going to fit with their criteria because they ensure the handler and the dog if anything happens on any of the visits that we do. It wasn’t just for Boston Medical Center. I could visit schools for finals week, I could visit libraries, I could basically take him to any place where a therapy dog was needed, but I know that I wanted to specifically be at Boston Medical Center with Dexter.

Melanie: What a wonderful story. Sheryl, what have you seen – the results, from the Healing Pups, from all these different dogs that you’ve got coming there, and what are you seeing the patients’ benefits for?

Sheryl: It really is incredible, and I have to admit it’s so much more than I anticipated it would be. I think all of the handlers would agree that it is very humbling to be a handler of one of these therapy dogs. We make the introduction, but we let the dogs do the rest. We stand back and just let the dogs work their magic. We have seen, what I consider to be miracles. People who have not spoken, on two occasions, handlers reported that the patients actually – that’s the first word the staff had heard them say in the presence of an animal. Sometimes they will encourage a patient to get up who has not wanted to get out of bed, but if you go in and ask them, “Do you want to take my dog for a walk around the unit?” they will actually get up and do more work in their rehabilitation than they thought they probably could. Sometimes, it’s just providing comfort. The impact on staff has been so profound. It is not that unusual to see staff standing outside of a door of a patient room, watching the dog and the patient interact and welling up with tears. It really – I always say you almost have to see it to believe it. It’s very hard to just describe in words. 

Melanie: Mike, have you ever experienced anyone being afraid of the pups?

Mike: I have, and there’s – when you enter a hospital environment, you want to make sure that you’re not stepping on anyone’s toes, that you’re not making someone’s visit more stressful than it is. I don’t like to go into a crowded elevator without asking, “Is it okay if Dexter and I come into the elevator?” There were several staff members that were afraid of dogs. I know of two that, through Dexter, one of them eventually – probably through several weeks decided to get close enough to him, and then wanted to reach out and touch him for the first time. It was the first dog she had ever touched, and through the years that I had worked there, she would now be one of the people that would get on the floor and want Dexter in her arms. It definitely brought her closer to animals. There was also another staff member that actually rescued two dogs because of Dexter. She was petrified of dogs, and then realized that it was just a childhood fear, and moved on and now has two dogs of her own.

Sheryl: Melanie, I’d like to mention, if I may, that the dogs are also used at times, in a therapeutic way, for patients who have a fear of dogs. Riley, my black lab, and I have been working weekly. We were requested by one of our child psychologists to come up and help her work with a cute, little, four-year-old girl who was terrified of dogs, so much so that it was inhibiting her ability to go out of the house. For the past five, or six weeks, Riley and I have gone up to her appointment for the last half-hour of the appointment. The first week, she could only look at Riley through a glass window, and she screamed. Most recently, she was able to touch Riley. She kissed her tail. Today we’re going to see if she would be willing to pet Riley’s head to get closer to the face. I think it’s wonderful that the dogs are actually being used to help people get over their fear of dogs.

Melanie: Dogs, they say, smell fear in people. What makes a therapy dog a little bit more special? What makes it so that they don’t sense the fear in some of these people, or in a child, or some of these kinds of things, and then recoil as a result? What makes these dogs a little different? Sheryl, why don’t you start with this?

Sheryl: Well, I think these dogs were chosen as therapy dogs or were able to become therapy dogs because they are essentially high-feelers. They are not aggressive animals, or if they have an aggressive side, they are able to keep it in check when they have their therapy dog vest on. My dog, Riley, is actually a certified assistance dog -- she was raised from the time she was a puppy – she’s actually a prison pup. She was raised in an area prison to be a certified assistance dog that was going to be working in a hospital, so part of her training was for the inmates – her inmate handler and other inmates – to simulate very stressful instances, including fear, including grief, et cetera, and to teach her how to manage herself in those settings.

Melanie: And Mike, your Dexter is a Boxer, yes?

Mike: Yes.

Melanie: Sometimes people are afraid of Boxers. Things like Mastiffs, Boxers, Pitbulls, they sometimes get a bad rep. What do you want listeners to know about Dexter, and other pups like him so that they know that these are trained pups, and not to be afraid and that they’re there to help?

Mike: Yeah, I did get a lot of questions about Dexter, “Is he aggressive? Is he a Pitbull? What type of dog is he?” I would always tell them he is a Boxer. He’s a rescue dog, so I don’t have papers – I don’t know that he is 100% Boxer, but we’re basically sure he’s 100% Boxer. But it’s all about the upbringing. I’ve known Pitbulls that are the sweetest animals in the world, and it all depends on the upbringing, the training, and how you raise them. Dexter was an extremely friendly dog, and when you talk about how dogs can sense feelings, Dexter could feel the energy in a room. When I would bring Dexter to a pediatric floor, if there were kids running, he wanted to run. If I brought him to an ICU or to a more critical patient, he would just absorb the sense of the room and become a completely mellow dog, and just want to be there for the patient. It was amazing to see, and we could do it within one visit. We could stop by pediatrics and then we could go up into a sicker floor and see his demeanor completely change depending on his environment. 

Melanie: That is so cool. Sheryl, wrap it up for us with the Healing Pups Program at Boston Medical Center, what you want listeners to know about it, how they can find out more about it, and how they can even get involved and meet some of these healing pups?

Sheryl: Certainly, to contact Patient Advocacy, we run the program, the number is 617-414-4870. We still have the opportunity to welcome a few more pups into the program. They would need to be either certified assistance dogs or certified therapy dogs. And certainly, if you or a loved one is going to be at Boston Medical Center and you think that they would benefit from a visitation, by all means, give us a call. We are very fortunate. We have an amazing, and dedicated group of handlers, so we now have at least one dog here every weekday and one or sometimes two that come in on the weekends. We are more than happy to pay you a visit. I can almost guarantee it will be the highlight of your stay at Boston Medical Center.

Melanie: Thank you both for being with us today. It’s such a wonderful program, and just a quick mention of Dexter’s passing recently. He was such an asset to the whole program, and he will be missed. For more information on the Healing Pups Program at Boston Medical Center, you can go to BMC.org, that’s BMC.org. You’re listening to Boston Med Talks. I’m Melanie Cole, thanks for listening.