Meet Alicia, a facility dog here to lend a helping paw

Mayo Clinic recently welcomed two facility dogs to its team. Learn how these specially trained team members are making a difference for patients.

Amy Fabian became a little more popular last year.

When she'd walk down a hallway or jump on a shuttle, people began to take notice. There was a jingle. Or a wag.

Alicia brings smiles to many faces.

All courtesy of Fabian's new companion, Alicia, a golden lab and one of Mayo Clinic's first facility dogs, specially trained to help Fabian, a certified child life specialist, care for patients.

"We walk down the halls, and people hear her tags and say, 'That must be Alicia!'" Fabian says. "The shuttle drivers all know us by name now, too."

Fabian understands the enthusiasm that greets her when she's with Alicia.

"Alicia is a sweet, beautiful, loveable ball of fur," Fabian says.

And so much more.

Specialized training

Alicia joined Mayo Clinic in May 2022. But her journey began before she was even born.

Canine Companions, an organization that provides free, highly trained service dogs and facility dogs to individuals and organizations, carefully selects the Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and crosses of the two that will become its breeder dogs. Eight weeks after Alicia was born to one of these special mothers, she moved in with a Canine Companions volunteer puppy raiser for a year and a half.

"They worked with her on basic cues and exposed her to different people, places and sounds," Fabian says. "They also began to introduce some advanced cues. Volunteer puppy raisers do such important work, as this prepares the dogs to work full time in various environments."

Fabian and Alicia with Alicia's puppy raiser, Elysabeth Bouton.

Then Alicia went to a Canine Companions regional training center where she worked with professional trainers for nine months learning more cues and being evaluated to determine the type of placement that would be best for her.

"The trainers get to know each dog's personality, their working style and the kind of role they might be best suited for," Fabian says.

In addition to supporting child life staff, facility dogs also work in special education settings, with physical, occupational and speech therapists, and within the criminal justice system.

In April 2022, after going through an application and interview process, Fabian traveled to Canine Companions' North Central Training Center in New Albany, Ohio, to receive training and, eventually, meet the dog she'd be paired with.

"We didn't get to work with the dogs right away," Fabian says. "We learned how they communicate, how to work with them."

Caning Companions staff were also observing Fabian and other trainees to ensure the dog they had in mind for each was likely to be a good fit.

"The staff do so much behind the scenes to match the dog and human," Fabian says. "They want to get the right match."

That work proved providential.

Alicia and Amy Fabian.

"The moment they brought me Alicia, my heart melted," Fabian says. "She was the sweetest thing, so calm and well suited for pediatrics."

The pair spent a week working together to master the 45 cues Alicia had been trained to perform.

Then they headed back to Minnesota, where Alicia would begin her working life as an official member of the Mayo Clinic team — complete with her own name badge.

'An amazing partner'

Alicia has expanded the services Fabian can provide to the specific patient population she works with.

"Alicia has added a whole new dynamic to my role that wasn't accessible when I was working alone," she says. "We as humans aren't able to make the same kinds of connections that dogs are able to. They can brighten days and open kids up emotionally in ways we aren't always able to."

Fabian describes Alicia as "an amazing partner and support in my job."

Together, Fabian and Alicia help patients work on goals like going for walks, improving fine motor skills, socializing and identifying emotions. Alicia can roll a ball back and forth with a patient who needs to stretch muscles or work on hand-eye coordination. She motivates patients to get out of bed by giving them the opportunity to take her for a walk.

For patients working on fine motor and social skills, Alicia is there to play games. She can roll dice and pull cards from a hand held for her. She can also paint with patients, thanks to a paintbrush that was adapted just for her use.

"Colors can help kids identify emotions," Fabian says. "So while painting with red, we'll talk about what makes us angry. When painting with yellow, we'll talk about what makes us happy."

And when it's time to clean up the toy room, Alicia works right alongside the young patients putting toys away.

Alicia also teams up with Fabian when she explains medical procedures to young patients. While Fabian uses developmentally appropriate language to increase kids' understanding, Alicia serves as a model to demonstrate what they might experience.

"Kids use a stethoscope to listen to her heart and put a blood pressure cuff on her leg to learn what to expect when they have their vital signs done," Fabian says. "We've put EEG leads on her and even taught her to wear an anesthesia mask."

Fabian often calls on Alicia to help with alternative focus and pain management. She is a steady, comforting presence during procedures like blood draws and IV insertions.

"Pokes are tough for anyone," Fabian says. "Alicia has laid her head on kids' tummies during procedures. She doesn't always take away the anxiety in the moment, but you can see the kids relax afterward when they are able to focus on her."

Continuing education

Just like Fabian and other Mayo Clinic staff, Alicia has to keep up her education.

"Each day, we have to spend 15 minutes training outside of work," Fabian says. "We also have to complete recertification yearly either by going to the Canine Companions campus or by having one of their evaluators come see us locally."

Fabian says Alicia has deepened her love for her work.

"I've always enjoyed my work, but Alicia has opened a door to many fun and creative ways to work with my patients and families, which has been very exciting," she says.

Alicia, who lives with Fabian, has also changed her personal life.

"She's given me a new sense of meaning outside of work," Fabian says. "She shows me how to enjoy every moment because that's what she does on a daily basis."

Editor's note: Alicia isn't the only facility dog at Mayo Clinic. Her colleague, Wavey, works with Amy Schei on Mayo's Complex Intervention Unit.