NEW BRUNSWICK — One of the newest employees at Children's Specialized Hospital is still in his "introductory period," having just started in November. But he is picking up on the rhythm and flow of the hospital more quickly than expected, and has been described by superiors as "extremely intelligent and lovable."

It's not a doctor with especially good bedside manner. It's Burton, a 22-month-old golden retriever who — guided by his owner and handler, CSH senior recreational therapist Katie Ahlers — is the only full-time therapy or service dog at any New Jersey pediatric hospital.

The desire to add a facility dog to the CSH staff came from conversations with patients and their families about the comforts of home they missed most during weeks or months-long stays, according to Bonnie Altieri, CSH vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer.

The hospital partnered with Mickey's Kids Charitable Foundation for funding support to train Burton at Canine Assistants in Georgia, where he was born, then bring him to New Jersey.

Altieri said Burton has already had a "tremendous impact" on everyone in the family-centered care environment of the RWJBarnabas Health facility. The dog's training included learning meanings of words, and recognition of human facial expressions and demeanor.

"He's really very expert at interpreting that communication, and kind of thinking up his interactions with our patients and families, depending on where they are in their process here," Altieri said.

Since Burton is still relatively young, the hope is that he will continue to learn, and customize his skills to fit each individual patient. Already, he has become familiar with the children he sees regularly, playing catch or fetch and letting them pet and cuddle him.

"He provides really welcome distraction for kids who might otherwise be bored, or having to endure some of the necessary but painful things that have to happen while you're undergoing rehabilitation," Altieri said.

Want to see more of Burton? CSH's Facebook page has pictures from his welcome party on Nov. 16.

Patrick Lavery produces "New Jersey's First News" and is New Jersey 101.5's morning drive breaking news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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