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He’s The Respiratory Therapist With A Talking Dog

Blog He’s The Respiratory Therapist With A Talking Dog

Tim Conlin has found that when his dog talks to patients, their tears and their fears dissipate.


There are nights that Tim Conlin comes home from a tough day as a respiratory therapist, walks into his house and heads straight for his dog, Cassie.

He needs to thank her.

Conlin thanks her for stopping the tears. He thanks her for soothing the fear. He thanks her for bringing a giggle. He thanks her for being his secret tool at Riley Hospital for Children.

You see, Cassie isn’t just any dog. She is a talking dog. She is the star of videos stored on Conlin’s cell phone. She is a dog that not only talks, but speaks right to the patients at Riley -- at their very lowest and scariest moments.

As a respiratory therapist, Conlin manages ventilators and intubates patients. His job is also to give breathing treatments to kids. The treatments can be long and intense, sometimes three or four times a day.  

Conlin works with very sick kids, with scared kids and with kids who, sometimes, just can’t seem to be calmed down.

Until… they hear the high-pitched, squeaky voice and they see the sweet, brown furry face.

And they hear the words: “So I just want you to know, I know you really don’t want to get those breathing treatments. But, I’m having to take a bath,” says Cassie, from a bathtub, via a video on Conlin’s cell phone. “I hate baths so you know what? You can do it. I have faith in you. I believe in you. You are rockin’ awesome. So just do it. Woof woof.” 

Sometimes, the videos are about breathing treatments. Sometimes, they are about not going to potty. Sometimes, Cassie even pleas for patients to send some dog bones home with her dad (Conlin).

The talking dog videos are simple. They are funny. They are sweet and they are touching.

But, most importantly, they are magical.

***

It happens time and time again. Patients are flailing their arms, with tears running down their faces. They are inconsolable.

“I show videos of my dog talking and it’s proven to be a good distraction,” Conlin says. “I really like to make kids laugh. I think laughter is the best medicine.”

Many of Conlin’s patients are too young to reason with.

“How can you tell a 2-year-old, ‘Come on, this breathing treatment is good for you. It’s going to make you feel better,’” Conlin says.

Cassie is his secret weapon.

“Hey, you ever see a talking dog before?” Conlin will ask those little patients when he enters their hospital rooms.

Often, they stop for a second to try to figure out what this guy is talking about. “No,” they will say timidly.

“Well, do you want to see my talking dog?” Conlin will ask.

The answer, almost always, is yes. Conlin hands his cell phone over to those tiny hands and they become mesmerized. There is a dog talking to them about this guy in their room.

“Hey, this is Cassie, Tim’s dog. I heard all about you and how good you’re doing. That’s fantastic. And that you might be going home really soon. That is great news. I’m so happy for you. It’s kind of overcast here but I just had a chance to go outside and I wanted to say hello to you and hope that you do well and get home really soon. And I’m so proud of you for all that you’ve accomplished. That’s fantastic. Have a great day and you have a good time with all your therapy and get home soon, alright? OK? Woof woof.”

***

This is the part of the story that Conlin doesn’t want told. Truth of the matter is, we don’t really want to tell it either.

But we have to.

Cassie doesn’t really talk (shhhh, please don’t tell those kids at Riley).

A couple of years ago, a friend of Conlin’s and his wife, Kris, showed them an app, an app where you could take a photo of your dog, line her mouth up and then talk into the phone. That app would then change the voice and make it look like the dog is talking.

Conlin and Kris fell in love with that app. They started using it on Cassie, their now 7-year-old rescue dog. It cracked them up, made them smile.

The Conlins started thinking. Those patients at Riley would really like this app. It could make them smile, too. And the talking dog was born.

Sometimes, Conlin likes to show patients videos of his talking dog that have nothing to do with the hospital.

Like the one where Cassie says: “Hi Dad, really sorry that I wasn’t able to potty this afternoon. I love you anyway. Woof, woof.”

Or the one where Cassie is lying down, sound asleep, talking: “Hi Dad, I was having fun playing with my alligator but then I fell asleep. I love you. Woof, woof.”

Or the one where Cassie fills the kids in on what she’s doing at home: “Hi Dad, Mom says she’s going to teach me how to play tennis. So, I’ve got my visor on and I’m ready to go. I had a tennis ball in my mouth but I can’t talk to you and carry a ball at the same time. Anyway, I’m not that multitalented. Woof, woof.”

As the patients watch Cassie, a peace often fills the room. They stop fighting the therapy. Conlin can listen to their breathing, check their heart rates and connect on their level. Cassie makes Conlin pretty special to the patients.

He is, after all, the therapist with the talking dog.

“Can I see your talking dog? Can I see your talking dog?” patients ask Conlin when he comes back to see them for a second or third time.

Of course, he says.

***

But, of course, nothing is foolproof.  

Cassie’s talking works best on kids 5 years old and younger. Once the patient is 7 or 8 or 9, they will tell Conlin: “That’s not a talking dog. That’s stupid. That’s an app.”

And, even if they believe Cassie really talks, they still may not like it. Some kids won’t even look at the videos. One 4-year-old once told Conlin: “Oh, your talking dog is so annoying.”

So, Cassie made a message for that little girl: 

“Hello, hello…This is the annoying dog Cassie. Anyway. How are you? My dad told me about you. I wish I could talk to you but I don’t have a phone in front of me. He’s got the phone. He won’t buy me a phone. Anyway, we have to share. I hope you’re doing OK today. It’s sunny outside. I’m just kind of waking up. And I wanted to give you a message that said, ‘Hey, I hope you’re doing OK. I hope you have a great day.’ And do you have any dog treats in your bag? Like, you know, Milk Bones or something? If you do, give them to dad and he’ll give them to me. I like dog bones. I hear you’re very special and doing good, so keep up the good work. Have a great day and I’ll talk to you soon. Woof, woof.”

The smiles Conlin sees on those kids’ faces are indescribable. It makes him love that dog of his even more. And when Cassie especially helps a patient during one of Conlin’s shifts?

“I do come home and I tell her she made someone’s day and I tell her ‘Thanks a lot,’” Conlin says. “She just sits by the treat jar and says, ‘Come on. Just give it to me. Give me the treats.’”

And the treats keep coming and coming and coming.

After all, how many treats would ever really be enough to thank a talking dog who helps all those kids?

-- By Dana Benbow, Senior Journalist at IU Health.
   Reach Benbow via email dbenbow@iuhealth.org or on Twitter @danabenbow.

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