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US: Ollie the dog helps U.S. kids with vaccine hesitancy one jab at a time

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By Daniel Trotta

Ollie the dog returns to greet children in a hospital as COVID-19 restriction ease in California © Reuters/MIKE BLAKE Ollie the dog returns to greet children in a hospital as COVID-19 restriction ease in California

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - There is no vaccine hesitancy like that of a 9-year-old girl staring down the glint of a hypodermic needle.

And there is no remedy quite like Ollie, a 6-year-old goldendoodle therapy dog who is helping kids at Rady Children's Hospital-San Diego overcome the anxiety associated with getting a COVID-19 vaccine.

Ollie the dog returns to greet children in a hospital as COVID-19 restriction ease in California © Reuters/MIKE BLAKE Ollie the dog returns to greet children in a hospital as COVID-19 restriction ease in California

Ollie and 14 other dogs of the PetSmart Paws for Hope Canine Therapy Program have been helping kids age 5 to 11 ever since they became eligible for the vaccine earlier this month.

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Across the United States, adults are resisting shots out of mistrust stemming from how quickly the vaccines rolled out, questions about possible side effects or in many cases fear driven by spurious rumors. Kids are just scared it's going to hurt.

Ollie the dog returns to greet children in a hospital as COVID-19 restriction ease in California © Reuters/MIKE BLAKE Ollie the dog returns to greet children in a hospital as COVID-19 restriction ease in California

The anticipation of a jab at Rady's vaccine clinic had 9-year-old Avery Smith in tears. Then Ollie came in and sat at her feet. Avery mother's, Kelli Donahue, took a picture of her with the dog and Avery's sister Olive, 6.

"It helped me because I never had a COVID vaccine before and I didn't know what it felt like. But when I saw the dog it helped me calm down," Avery said.

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Before the vaccine, the dogs already had a job bringing joy to patients admitted to the children's hospital, many of them battling cancer or other diseases that can sap morale of patients, their parents and hospital staff.

"Sometimes a parent will say, 'He's asleep from his surgery, but can I pet the dog?'" said Ollie's owner, Kristin Gist, 75, a canine therapy volunteer and former hospital programs director. "They can really cuddle with the dog and feel better, too."

Ollie the dog returns to greet children in a hospital as COVID-19 restriction ease in California © Reuters/MIKE BLAKE Ollie the dog returns to greet children in a hospital as COVID-19 restriction ease in California

When COVID restrictions hit early last year, some 20,000 annual canine visits came to a halt. They restarted about three months ago.

Ollie the dog returns to greet children in a hospital as COVID-19 restriction ease in California © Reuters/MIKE BLAKE Ollie the dog returns to greet children in a hospital as COVID-19 restriction ease in California

"There was nothing. It was silent. The kids were bored," said Carlos Delgado, a hospital spokesperson. "So thank God we were able to start bringing the program back. Even a three-minute visit with a canine makes a difference for the day."

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Donna Bryson and Lisa Shumaker)

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