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This Secret Santa Paws Program at Nemours Is Too Cute

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Photos by Natalie Orga

Nemours Children’s Health facility dogs shopped for howl-iday gifts for other canine companions in a “Secret Santa Paws” program.

@delawaretodaymagazine Is there anything cuter than dogs picking Christmas gifts? 🎁😍 #secretsantapaws #christmas ♬ Christmas song “Jingle Bell” – 3KTrack


On Tuesday, Dec. 6, two furry friends named Ali and Talon gleefully romped through the aisles of a Wilmington Concord Pet Foods & Supplies, on the hunt for exciting toys and tasty treats–but these aren’t just your average pups running errands with their owners. They’re highly-trained service animals. Ali and Talon are facility dogs, and they work at Nemours Children’s Health. This means they have crucial, full-time jobs working with children in hospitals, and they’ve been training for those jobs since puppyhood.

The dogs fulfill a variety of functions: modeling how to take “medication,” get an MRI or other procedures; comforting patients during invasive procedures or after grief; encouraging patients to participate in therapy and more. So why were they going on the cutest shopping spree ever? It’s actually to help other facility dogs across the country.

As part of a “Secret Santa Paws” program, Ali and Talon shopped for toys, treats and accessories to form a gift box for other facility dogs from a surprise location. They’ll get a gift box in return, filled with items hand–or paw–selected by facility dogs elsewhere in the country. With about 75% of U.S.-based hospital facility dogs participating in this program, it’s a huge success, helping to bring awareness to these animals with important roles in our society.

The Secret Santa Paws program also works to bring together and form a sense of community among handlers. “It’s really cool to be able to meet other dogs across the country, meet other handlers…it really broadens your network of potential resources to be able to pull from,” notes Kelsey Cebula, Pet Therapy Coordinator at Nemours Children’s Health.

Cebula says, “We know the hospital can be sometimes cold and scary. The last thing we want is a patient having to leave having those feelings, so by being able to have the continuity of care with the facility dogs–seeing them every day–that provides a uniquely positive experience. So when kids leave the hospital, they forget about some of the traumatic things that might have happened, but they’re remembering, ‘Oh, I got to meet Ali or Talon,’ and that’s what they’re looking forward to if they come back.”

secret santa paws nemours delawareDoes your dog have a comforting presence that would work well in a hospital setting? If you want to be a pet therapy volunteer–a person and their personal pet, volunteering to visit patients in the hospital–reach out to Kelsey Cebula at animalassistedtherapy@nemours.com and ask for an application. If you want to donate to Nemours Children’s Health therapy and facility dogs, go to nemours.org and click the “donate” link. You can also buy them items from their Amazon wishlist on the same page.

Related: Nemours: 30 Years of Pediatric Cancer Treatment in Delaware

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