Cancer Survivor and His Bullmastiff Bring Smiles to Hospitalized Children in Indiana

Not your typical therapy dog, this 130-pound gentle giant is spreading the love to kids going through cancer treatments, recovering from surgery, and even families watching over little ones in the NICU.

therapy dog and cancer patients in Riley hospital
Photo: Courtesy Riley Children's Hospital, photo by Mike Dickbernd

When Brad Hoop and his dog, Gus, walk into Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis, people definitely take notice. Not because there's a dog in the hospital—therapy dogs are used widely, especially in children's hospitals, to provide patients with a smile and snuggle, as well as a much-needed respite from the trials of hospitalization. Usually, however, when people think of therapy dogs, golden retrievers or small breeds that are easy to cuddle come to mind.

Gus is different: He's a 130-pound bullmastiff.

When Hoop was undergoing chemotherapy for advanced testicular cancer, the self-professed needle-phobe sat waiting to have his blood drawn, a group of therapy dogs entered and changed everything. "It was just, wow, it was amazing what a difference that dog made," Hoop explains. "It was awesome."

therapy dog and cancer patients in Riley hospital
Courtesy Riley Children's Hospital, photo by Mike Dickbernd

The dogs were an inspiration for Hoop, he says. "Right then and there, I thought, 'You know I'm gonna beat this thing and when I'm back up on my feet, I want to pursue doing therapy work with the dog just like that one day.'"

After Hoop adopted Gus, who is a retired show dog, the pair completed the intensive training required to allow Gus to become a therapy dog and they began their hospital visits. They visit Riley Hospital for Children once a week, checking in on kids in oncology, neurology, the ICU, and even with parents and families in the NICU. Hoop says Gus does so well with his job because he's just a big softy. "He's laid-back and calm and just wants to get loved on."

therapy dog and cancer patients in Riley hospital
Courtesy Riley Children's Hospital, photo by Mike Dickbernd

Studies have shown that therapy dogs benefit hospitalized children in myriad ways—from decreasing the perception of pain and decreasing anxiety, to just giving them a break from the monotony—and Kim Ziegler, the child life specialist at Riley wants to urge parents of hospitalized children to seek out these programs because they can help ease a child's hospital stay.

"A lot of parents aren't aware of these services in hospitals, so I think it's super important to highlight services like this," she says. "There are always so many different services in children's hospitals: pet therapy, art therapy, music therapy."

therapy dog and cancer patients in Riley hospital

Ziegler says that Hoop and Gus are a special pair and everyone—staff included—loves to see them coming. "They work so well as a team and Gus just has an amazing ability to make people smile. I don't know what it is about him, but as soon as we walk onto the unit it just brightens everyone's day."

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