Therapy dog comforts Federal Way girl with brain tumor

Dresden, a yellow lab, visit 8-year-old Kaylie Bergen of Federal Way. - Courtesy photo
Dresden, a yellow lab, visit 8-year-old Kaylie Bergen of Federal Way.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

For a girl who is crazy passionate about cats, having a dog come to visit her house is, well, a bit different.

But then again, Dresden, a yellow lab, isn't just a regular dog. She's a highly trained therapy dog who spends her days visiting hospice patients — old and young — and making them feel better.

One of Dresden's regulars is 8-year-old Kaylie Bergen, a cat fanatic whose family has fostered dozens of cats and whose house is decorated with Kaylie's feline passion. But Kaylie is willing to put all that aside when Dresden comes to visit.

"Dresden's leash helps me," Kaylie said during a recent visit as Dresden pulled away while Kaylie held on to the leash and pulled herself up from laying on the floor to a sitting position. "Dresden's smiling!"

Dresden started visiting Kaylie about two years ago, when the Federal Way girl joined Providence Hospice of Seattle's pediatric program. Kaylie was diagnosed with a malignant tumor in the brainstem at age 5 and has been living with it ever since. Hospice nurses, social workers and physical therapists provide the human care Kaylie needs. Dresden provides the canine care.

"We love Dresden," said Kaylie's mother, Christy Bergen. "To have a trained dog come to bring the ball back to you was amazing to Kaylie. To snuggle, give kisses, do whatever Kaylie says, she loves the visits. Dresden is a highlight of the day."

Therapy dog handlers go through a training program offered by Pet Partners to learn how to train their animals to be therapy dogs. The animals are trained not only to follow the directions of the patients they visit and offer lots of love and affection, but also to stay calm in the face of otherwise enticing distractions — such as cats.

That's particularly challenging in a house like Kaylie's, which always has several cats prowling around. "Dresden loves our cats too, as much as Kaylie does," Christy said. "She gets excited and looks at them."

But she doesn't chase. She's been highly trained not to.

"Because of Dresden's training she's able to go and be with Kaylie in a way that's not overwhelming for Kaylie," said Maureen Horgan, Providence Hospice of Seattle social worker and clinical manager of the Stepping Stones program for pediatric hospice patients.

During visits from dogs like Dresden, patients often pet, hug, or talk to the dog, throw a ball for the dog to fetch, give commands to the dog to "sit," "lie down" and "get," which can be especially empowering for younger patients and family members. Sometimes patients simply sit or lie quietly with the dog at their feet or by their side.

Providence Hospice of Seattle currently has three therapy dogs like Dresden working with patients. The agency, which helps adults and children at the end of their lives, is always looking for more.

"Studies have shown that interacting with animals can have significant physiological and psychological benefits for people," Horgan said. "The presence of a friendly companion animal can help to lower blood pressure, reduce feelings of anxiety and isolation and foster a greater sense of well-being. In fact, simply petting an animal can trigger the release of beneficial hormones that enhance mood."

Kaylie and her family have seen these benefits. Even Kaylie's younger brother enjoys playing with Dresden when she visits. "Dresden is such a sweet dog. It definitely lifts Kaylie's spirits to know she's coming, to plan for when she's coming, to do something special for her," Christy said. "Animals are so good at that. When (Kaylie) wasn't feeling good, we got Dresden on the couch and Kaylie pet her. Whatever she needs, Dresden does it."

Learn more

To learn more about Providence Hospice of Seattle's therapy dog program, or to volunteer to be part of the program, go to

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