Photo by Jenan Taha/United Way of Greater Austin.
Skye the standard poodle is basically a COVID-19 vaccine expert—well, at least when it comes to comforting children ages 5 to 11 who are now able to receive their shots. Her method is simple: She snuggles her snout in the lap of a child who might be scared to receive the vaccine and waits patiently for pets and cuddles.
“Getting to play with Skye’s curls on top of her head versus watching a shot go in the arm makes a huge difference for the kids,” says Susan Windham, Skye’s human partner in their therapy dog duo with The Dog Alliance, a Texas-based nonprofit that focuses on harnessing the power of the bond between people and dogs.
Since Nov. 3, when kids ages 5 to 11 became eligible, more than 1,000 children in central Texas have received their vaccine thanks to a partnership forged between The Dog Alliance, Vax Together Austin, Austin Independent School District and Walgreens.
“We’ve had kids who were so tense and nervous, and then all of a sudden they’re playing with Skye and the Walgreens pharmacist is like, ‘You’re done!’” Windham says.
Walgreens Pharmacy Manager Casey Nicholas administers a COVID-19 shot to a child who appears distracted while petting therapy dog Skye. Photo by Jenan Taha/United Way of Greater Austin.
“Getting a vaccine can be scary enough to begin with, for adults even,” Nicholas says. “The build-up to coming in can make kids nervous, but once they see the dogs, you can see them start to relax.”
Parents were also grateful to have the therapy dogs at the clinic. Nicholas described how the clinics always set up a quiet, private room with one dog and one Walgreens immunizer for children with special needs.
“These parents were in tears leaving the room because they weren't able to get their child’s vaccine elsewhere,” Nicholas says. “They actually had to leave clinics previously because it was too much for their kids, but being able to come to our clinic with the therapy space, their child was finally able to get a much needed immunization.”
The Dog Alliance has also heard from many parents who brought their children to the vaccine clinics—and the feedback has all been, well, paw-sitive.
“I got an email from a parent thanking us for being there, saying Skye made such a difference and asking if she was going to be there for round two, to make it easier,” Windham says.
Great news: Skye will be there for this child’s second COVID-19 shot. Walgreens is continuing to partner with Vax Together Austin and The Dog Alliance on future clinics through December.
“We’re looking forward to doing a lot more clinics and getting more vaccines to more people, especially in socially vulnerable areas where access can be harder to come by,” Nicholas says.
For Nicholas, her job as a pharmacy manager goes beyond the four walls of the Walgreens store in Austin where she works—it’s about keeping the community she serves healthy and safe, now more than ever.
“Even though we are working a lot in our stores, doing 60 to 70 immunizations a day, I love helping at these clinics because not only is it so important to get these vaccines out into our community, but also it's really fun to be part of a community event,” she says. “And I mean, bonus, you get to pet dogs there!”
Clearly these COVID-19 vaccine clinics are a win for the community, a win for the kids and a win for the therapy dogs, too. Windham says the pups love the extra attention, and that Skye always comes home from her work with a wagging tail.