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UK ‘Canine Counselor’ Hazel comforts patients, parents – and her human helper

UK Healthcare Canine Counselor Hazel and other therapy dogs were a highlight of Tanzie Luciani's two-month stay at the Kentucky Children's Hospital. Her mom says she and Tanzie cried when Tanzie was discharged — partly because they'd miss Hazel and the other furry helpers.
Shannon Luciani
UK Healthcare Canine Counselor Hazel and other therapy dogs were a highlight of Tanzie Luciani's two-month stay at the Kentucky Children's Hospital. Her mom says she and Tanzie cried when Tanzie was discharged — partly because they'd miss Hazel and the other furry helpers.

Hazel is quiet as she strolls the hallways of Kentucky Children’s Hospital with her assistant, Samantha. She’s working. You can barely hear her tags jingle, or her fur-covered nails tap the tiled floor.

Hazel is a 3-year-old Bouvier-Aussie Doodle mix. Samantha Payne is the woman who adopted her and enrolled her in therapy dog training, which led to certification and insurance. Every Monday, they travel from Lawrenceburg to Lexington to visit patients – and staff, like tech Makenzie Lunsford.

“Today's actually my first time I've seen her. I always miss her. I see the pictures on the doors and I never get to meet her, but I know that a lot of the kids love her, because they'll always ask me where she is.”

Often, Hazel and Samantha meet parents, like this couple whose baby is in the neonatal ICU.

“She likes to sniff shoes a lot.”

“Like cats and dogs, so she's probably sniffing ours.”

“Hi, baby!”

“You do such a good job. Thank you.”

Samantha paid for Hazel’s training. She pays for her annual certification, and the gasoline for their 50-mile round-trips. She says spending two hours there every Monday evening the last two years has been fun for both of them.

“I just felt like it was a good volunteer opportunity for us, and Hazel's really good. And the kids really love her. Because she's a doodle and has all the hair, she tends to get a lot of attention from the kids. They love rubbing in her hair.”

Hazel and the other UK HealthCare Canine Counselors even have their own UK-provided trading cards that Samantha and the other human helpers hand out.

“Sit.”

“Do you have any of Hazel’s trading cards?”

“Yes.”

“That is hysterical.”

I tell you, they’re like currency out here.”

On this Monday, Hazel has an appointment with 9-year-old Tanzie. They got to know each other last year when Tanzie, who has a bone disease requiring limb-lengthening, was hospitalized for two months.

Mom Shannon Luciani says Tanzie planned her days around visits by Hazel and other canine counselors.

“When she would see the animals, she would plan to see them, she would wait to take her shower, because she wants him to curl up in bed with her. And as soon as they would come to visit with them, she'd be happy, excited. And then she would take her shower and kind of calm down for the night. And we’d do our bed change.”

Tanzie’s got an outpatient procedure scheduled for the next day, but at this moment, she’s only got eyes for Hazel.

“She would always come up in the bed with me.”

“How did that make you feel?”

“She is so soft. It made me feel warm. Because she was always warm and soft. It feels good to see her again.”

That’s why Samantha does what she does, at her own expense.

“You go into the rooms and some of the kids haven't smiled in a while or laughed and Hazel can bring that out in them. It's very rewarding to walk into a room and the kids to start smiling immediately and look forward to her visits.”

But there’s another reason. Samantha grew up loving animals, especially dogs. She has two others at home, and when Hazel’s not wearing her therapy vest, the trio romp together.

Dogs, Samantha says, don’t have an agenda.

“I feel like they’re good at heart. They're very good at calming you down. And especially the therapy dogs, I think they come into a situation and help calm the patient down and just having a dog can take down your anxiety or depression or blood pressure.”

“And so that's why I love dogs. They're just so kind at heart.”

“They're good for you too.”

“Yes, they are. And Hazel has helped me become more social, because I've not always been a social person. So I feel like Hazel has been my therapy dog too, in bringing me more out of my shell.”

Samantha says she’ll keep volunteering for a long time, and, when it’s time to hang up Hazel’s vest, she’ll get a new dog trained.

There’s a saying: “Love is a four-legged word.”

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John McGary is a Lexington native and Navy veteran with three decades of radio, television and newspaper experience.
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