Leah and Brea: How This Child Life Team Brings Smiles to Kids

For Leah Frohnerath, M.S., CCLS, her own experiences inspired her to pursue a career as a Child Life specialist, and once she arrived at Johns Hopkins All Children’s, she knew the benefit a facility dog could bring to children in the hospital.

Brea with Leah Frohnerath, M.S., CCLS, at Johns Hopkins All Children's.
Published in Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital - Spring 2023

Eight-year-old Petra has been battling Ewing’s sarcoma since September 2022. Her treatment includes lots of appointments for chemotherapy, radiation and other therapies. There’s nothing fun about it, that is, until Brea, a 4-year-old Labrador retriever, shows up.

“She always looks forward to seeing her,” says Petra’s mom, Ingrid. “Brea is very patient. She goes on the bed, lays down and is very calm and projects her calmness to Petra and makes her smile.”

Brea (pronounced Bray-UH) was trained by Canine Companions and serves as Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital’s first facility dog. She’s a little different than the therapy dogs that volunteer at the hospital. First off, she’s an actual employee at the hospital working 40 hours a week. Also, facility dogs are trained to assist with goal-oriented interventions and address the physical and psychological needs of patients, families and staff. Bottom line — Brea provides comfort and support and serves as a friendly distraction for children during procedures and throughout their hospitalization.

“Brea has made such a huge impact on the patient experience,” says Child Life specialist, Leah Frohnerath, M.S., CCLS, who serves as Brea’s handler. “She has the personality and ability to build a connection with people that transcends words.”

That connection includes the one between Brea and Leah too. At their very first meeting, the two bonded instantly and were soon matched together. Leah recalls, “My heart swelled and she crawled into my lap for forever.”

Leah always loved animal assisted therapy, so working in the Child Life department with a facility dog became a dream. She mostly grew up at All Children’s Hospital, undergoing surgeries and therapies as a child for hereditary spastic paraplegia. The condition affected her leg muscles and her ability to walk, but animal assisted therapy helped her physically and emotionally. It all inspired her to pursue a career as a Child Life specialist, and once she arrived at Johns Hopkins All Children’s, she knew the benefit a facility dog could bring.

Aiden, a patient at Johns Hopkins All Children's, meets Brea the facility dog and Child Life specialist Leah Frohnerath. Brea provides comfort and support to children in the hospital.

“Brea and I help provide emotional support and companionship during a child’s first hospitalization or a potentially painful procedure,” Leah says. “Brea has become a fixture and even a member of the care team.”

Last month, Brea celebrated her 2-year anniversary at the hospital. She continues her busy days calming and comforting patients through various procedures, blood draws, CT scans, MRIs and more.

For patients like Petra, Brea continues support and motivate her through hospital stays.

“Brea is the nicest dog and Petra talks about her all the time,” says Ingrid, Petra’s mom. “When she was getting her port accessed for her chemo, Brea came and visited and it made her smile, and she didn’t even think about the pain.”

Petra’s experience with Brea has inspired their family to look into their own animal assisted therapy. In fact, the family will welcome a therapy dog in their home later this year. Now, instead of being scared for pokes and procedures at the hospital, Petra is a bit more courageous, thanks to Brea.

Frohnerath wants more children to benefit from the snuggles and support a dog, like Brea, provides. She hopes to one day add another facility dog to the hospital staff. More than 15 generous donors have made the facility dog program possible at the hospital, paying for Brea’s services as well as food and other work-related expenses. While one day Leah dreams of adding another furry coworker to the mix, Brea just focuses on spreading as much “paws-a-tivity” as she can.

Learn more about Brea and other Child Life programs and services.