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Originally published June 25, 2012 at 9:30 PM | Page modified June 25, 2012 at 9:52 PM

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Therapy dog hangs up her collar for retirement

Hazel, one of the first dogs in the United States to work as a full-time staff member at a children's hospital, is retiring.

McClatchy Newspapers

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Back in the day, when she was just a young pup, Hazel the therapy dog walked the halls of Sutter children's hospital in Sacramento, Calif., with unbridled energy.

Nine years later, Hazel's gait has slowed. White hair decorates her golden snout. Her enthusiasm for work has dampened just a tad.

Her humans have decided it is time for her to retire after nearly a decade of service to sick youngsters and their families.

As she lounged under the shade of a large tree Wednesday afternoon on the front lawn of the east Sacramento hospital, Hazel greeted admirers who came to bid her goodbye and wish her well.

"It's a pretty sentimental day," said Amy Medovoy, Sutter's Child Life coordinator, as past and current patients and hospital staffers gathered for an ice cream social in Hazel's honor. "But Hazel has worked a lot of hours and earned her retirement."

The doe-eyed Labrador retriever, who will turn 11 on Independence Day, was the first canine member of the hospital's Child Life team and one of the first dogs in the United States working as a full-time staff member at a children's hospital.

Two other dogs, Greta and Millie, are now part of the program and Hazel's replacement is in training with Canine Companions for Independence.

Hospitals across the country use specially trained animals in pet therapy programs to lift the spirits of patients. Studies have shown that such interactions can calm patients, help lower their blood pressure and make their hospital stays easier. Older people and children seem to especially benefit from such programs.

"When you're a child in an unfamiliar and scary environment, having a dog walk into the room is a very special thing," said Medovoy. "You can just see their faces light up. They relax. It brings kids back to a normal life."

Hazel's handler, Tracy Auble, said she has seen Hazel's impact "every single day that I have worked with her."

"I've seen the heart rates of some kids visibly go down while they are petting her," she said.

She has seen frightened and introverted children come out of their shells for the first time after Hazel greets them or climbs into their bed for pets and hugs, she said.

Alex Twardus, 15, of Auburn, Calif., met Hazel for the first time eight years ago while undergoing rigorous cancer therapy.

"When she came to see me, I was super excited because she was so cute," Alex said. Hazel reminded her of her own dog Sadie, she said, and made her feel better instantly.

"It brings you a lot closer to home because a lot of kids have pets and they miss them when they are in the hospital," she said.

Alex and her family came to the party last week to express their appreciation.

Hazel will continue to live with Auble, who said retirement for Hazel will mean more camping trips and forays to the river.

No donning of her special vest and Sutter ID tag every day. No more early mornings at the hospital.

"She'll get to lay around the house a lot more," Auble said. "She'll enjoy that."

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