Allison Proctor understands the power of an animal to comfort a child, help a parent overcome anxiety or defuse a painful situation. “Dogs especially have the ability to help relieve the stress of being in the hospital,” says Allison, the social worker and animal behavior expert who coordinates the Animal Visit and Therapy Program at Children’s National Hospital.

The program brings pets into the hospital for snuggles, pats and smiles in patient rooms, at special events and for spontaneous elevator encounters. Fingers touch fur. Tricks inspire giggles. A lingering look into a dog’s eyes can be a restoring meditation.

“For some people, it’s the only time they’re able to let their guard down,” Allison says. “Dogs are experts in love, compassion and companionship and give it in abundance.”

Allison grew up around animals and dreamed of a career in which she could leverage their ability to help people. After earning a master’s degree and becoming a social worker, Allison worked as a counselor on a ranch with farm animals and her dog, Echo. Her study of dog training and behavior prepared her to dial into empathy on both sides of the human-animal bond.

Her mission at Children’s National? To grow the program based on compassion, commitment and connection between people and animals. A grant from PetSmart Charities supports this effort. “Our strategy is low tech, but high-touch. Tails wag, people smile.” Allison’s goal is to have a dedicated space in the hospital where kids can connect with her team of volunteer therapists, including Timmy the frisky French bulldog, Gertie the massive Leonberger and Panda the Bernadoodle. Pet therapy, Allison says, “can be an easy, non-pharmaceutical, long-term and spontaneous form of pain relief.”

A young patient at Children's National Hospital.

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A young patient at Children's National Hospital.