Riley’s Furriest New Therapist: Elizabeth Paxton’s Puppy J.W. May Be Rounding Soon
The puppy, named J.W. after the hospital’s namesake, James Whitcomb Riley, and adopted from a local breeder of champion labs, is currently completing basic training school, where he is learning classic doggie skills like sitting, walking on a leash, and coming when his name is called.
“When people ask me, What is the difference between training an elephant and training a puppy? I always say, ‘About 10,000 pounds!’” Darryl Paxton is not just making a joke—this is a real-life for scenario for the local dad of three, who is an elephant trainer at the Indianapolis Zoo by day, and is teaching an adorable black Labrador puppy to be a therapy dog when he gets home at night.
The puppy training is a joint project between Darryl and his wife Elizabeth Paxton, who is the chief nursing officer at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. “We’ve always wanted to train a therapy dog, and when Riley recently changed its policy to allow therapy dogs in the hospital, the time was finally right,” she explains. The puppy, named J.W. after the hospital’s namesake, James Whitcomb Riley, and adopted from a local breeder of champion labs, is currently completing basic training school, where he is learning classic doggie skills like sitting, walking on a leash, and coming when his name is called. Once he graduates, J.W. will move on to a certified therapy dog training program, where he will learn duties like how to sit calmly while children and strangers pet him.
“We’ve always had labs as pets, and they’re so gentle and loving around people,” says Elizabeth. She explains that while J.W. will go on rounds and be available for the children at Riley to play with as a way to normalize their lives and bring some joy to a difficult experience, he will also have an extra-special role for the hard-working staff at the hospital: “Our staff deals with extreme amounts of stress. J.W. will live in my office during the day, and staff members can come in and spend five minutes with him whenever they need to relax and de-stress.”
At night, J.W. will go back home with Elizabeth and Darryl, who recently sent their youngest child off to college. “Yes, we are getting a new baby just when we have an empty nest,” admits Elizabeth with a laugh.
For Darryl, who has worked as an elephant trainer for the last 12 years, training J.W. is a chance to pay it forward. “Liz and I have been very fortunate, and we wanted to give something back to others,” he explains. He says the techniques for training an elephant and training a puppy are not very different. Though there is one place you probably won’t see him walking a five-ton pachyderm. “We have to teach J.W. to socialize and be around big crowds, so we took him to Lowe’s the other day,” says Elizabeth. “He thought that was a lot of fun, but he’s still a baby and his attention span lasts about two seconds!”
J.W. still has a lot to learn before he can join the staff at Riley, but Elizabeth is confident he will be ready by January. And then patients and staff can look forward to a wagging tail making their daily routine a little bit brighter.