Hunter, a 3-year-old golden retriever with unusually red fur, didn’t move a muscle Monday as he lay next to 8-year-old Landon Woodruff-Wicken on Landon’s hospital bed.
He didn’t budge when Landon poked at his head and didn’t flinch when Landon pinched his lips together.
This is Hunter on the job at Children’s Mercy Hospital. And he’s good at what he does.
“I can do whatever I want to him,” Landon said. “He’s a giant stuffed animal.”
Landon and Hunter are buddies because Landon has aplastic anemia and spent months at Children’s Mercy following a bone marrow transplant. He’s doing well now, but Hunter was there for him in the tougher times too.
“Hunter, remember when I had a PICC line?” Landon said, referring to his intravenous line for dispensing medication.
Hunter didn’t respond.
This year Hunter placidly napped his way onto Milk-Bone’s third annual list of “15 Dogs Who Changed the World.”
The dog treat company sponsors a service dog training program in the Atlanta area, Canine Assistants, and this year’s list included some program alums like Hunter.
But Hunter’s no sell-out, and neither is his handler, Aimee Hoflander, a patient activity coordinator at Children’s Mercy.
“You know, I don’t know if I’ve ever given him Milk-Bones,” Hoflander said. “I’m sure he loves them. He loves all treats.”
Hunter works in the hospital’s pediatric oncology unit. His canine colleague at Children’s Mercy in Overland Park, Hope, also made Milk-Bone’s list. The dogs are funded by donations.
Hope works in the epilepsy monitoring unit. She is a more traditional golden retriever, in both color and temperament.
Hoflander said they’re a good fit for their units, because kids recovering from cancer treatments often need to rest and Hunter has mastered patient snuggling. But kids being treated for epilepsy sometimes have to stay awake so doctors can monitor their brain scans while sleep-deprived, and Hope’s perkiness can help keep them from dozing off.
Dudley Arnold, the chief operating officer for Canine Assistants, said Hope and Hunter are both products of a relatively new training method that focuses more on socializing puppies and less on teaching them to do tricks for treats.
Dogs are creatures of habit, Arnold said. Once they get comfortable with a routine, they can be taught to do just about anything because it’s what they’re used to doing, not because they’re expecting a reward.
“We had a bunch of really hyper dogs (before) that, yeah, they could do any task you asked of them but their heads were sort of always spinning,” Arnold said. “They were always kind of wondering what they would have to do next.”
Hunter joined Children’s Mercy in June 2015 after Hoflander and others overcame infection control concerns by agreeing to keep him bathed and out of the rooms of patients who are in isolation. She also carries around a bottle of hand sanitizer and people who want to pet Hunter must use it first to keep him from becoming an unwitting germ trafficker.
Hoflander went to Georgia for a week of training and said she got emotional when she and Hunter first met — though she surmised that pregnancy hormones had something to do with that.
“I started crying and Hunter was just like wiggling and going crazy,” Hoflander said. “It was just like he knew that we were meant to be.”
Canine Assistants has more than 1,600 dogs working in hospitals and with individuals with disabilities.
But Hunter was the first at Children’s Mercy, and Hoflander said she felt pressure to make sure he wouldn’t be the last.
Almost two years in, the experiment is a success. Hunter romps and plays with Hoflander’s two small dogs at home, but when he enters the hospital every morning he knows it’s time to turn to turn the dial to docile.
On Monday he carefully lowered himself next to 7-year-old Tristyn Washington of Shawnee and laid his head next to her so she could stroke his ears.
“You think you could put his hair in a ponytail like yours?” Hoflander asked.
Tristyn grinned and started tugging the fur behind his ears together with both hands.
It wasn’t quite long enough.
“I can make it into a mohawk,” Tristyn said.