Allie Lee trains the dogs that deliver their special breed of canine love to the patients at Children’s National Medical Center, but Adele Lee is the reason the dogs are there in the first place.
“Adele saw it was needed,” Allie said.
His wife spent countless hours at the old Children’s Hospital on 13th Street NW. Her son Jay was born with multiple birth defects and was a patient there.
“The highlight of his day was standing at the window watching the kids across the street coming out of school,” Allie said. Back then, the hospital didn’t have the sorts of programs it has now to break the monotony.
Years later — after she and Allie had married, after Allie had turned his dog-training hobby into a business — Adele thought that bringing pooches to the hospital would brighten faces. The hospital was understandably reluctant. Hairy, smelly, slobbering animals in a place full of sick kids?
“They told her no, straight off the bat,” Allie, 63, said.
It was desperation that drove Allie into dog-training. Back in the 1960s, he had a German shepherd named Buck who was overly aggressive. Allie put him in the care of a dog trainer for 10 days, and when Buck came back, the dog behaved perfectly.
“But no sooner than I got the dog home, I forgot half the stuff the trainer taught me,” Allie said. “At the end of the week, we were at the same doggone place. Little did I know the problem was with me.”
Allie threw himself into the minutiae of dog-training. It was the perfect antidote to what he had come to see as a stress-filled job running a used-car dealership in the District.
“The dogs were an outlet” he said. “I could go home and take the dogs out for training. It forced me to make time for them. You have a dog, you have to give them time.”
He closed his dealership and started a business called Greenbelt Dog Training, working with clients and their dogs at the Greenbelt Volunteer Fire Department. Meanwhile, Adele wanted the dogs to entertain more than just their owners.
Recalled Allie: “She said, ‘Let’s try Children’s Hospital.’ I said no way.”
But Adele was persistent, so persistent that — with many safeguards in place — Allie started bringing dogs to the hospital’s atrium in 1998 or 1999. Four years later, they began bringing dogs up to playrooms on the different wards.
Allie works with the dogs and their owners, making sure they both have calm, cool demeanors. The dogs must not be aggressive or startled by sudden sounds or movements. Most of the Greenbelt dogs do tricks — roll over, dance, ride a skateboard — but really all that’s required of them is that they let themselves be petted.
“A lot of the kids are in pain,” Allie explained. “They want to go home. They’re grumpy. It kind of relaxes the kid, gives a little entertainment, something to focus on other than the environment they’re in.”
Dogs, Allie said, seem to know when a person is ill. They don’t shy away from even the sickest patients. And so when Adele learned she had cancer and got so bad that she had to enter a hospice, Allie would bring Joker, his little Maltese, with him when he visited.
“When I put Joker on the bed, he always lay right between her legs. He just stayed there the whole time, no matter if it was for an hour or a few hours. He was right there.”
Adele died in 2007.
“I decided she worked so hard getting the program together, it’s only right I continue as long as I can,” Allie said.
Two Fridays a month, he goes to Children’s, along with different members of his dog club and their dogs: Joker; Talen, a Labrador; Robertson, a sheltie; Stretch, a corgi . . .
All of the owner/handlers volunteer their time. And so, of course, do the dogs.
“I call them God’s little angels,” Allie said. “I think they’re truly connected with our spirit.”
Three dogs have a special role at Children’s Hospital. We’ll meet them this week. Meantime, won’t you participate in my annual fundraising campaign for the hospital? You can make a tax-deductible donation by going to www.childrensnational.org/washingtonpost or sending a check (payable to Children’s Hospital) to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.
All of the money goes to pay the medical bills of underinsured children.