Texas Children’s Hospital’s First Therapy Dog and Her Child Life Specialist to Retire After Nearly 2,000 Patient Visits and More Than 12,000 Bedside Interventions

Press Release

Sarah Herbek and Golden retriever, Elsa, have brought countless smiles to sick children and their families since 2016

HOUSTON, TX (March 31, 2022) — After visiting and comforting nearly 2,000 patients and completing more than 12,000 bedside interventions, Texas Children’s Hospital’s first therapy dog, Elsa, and her handler — Child Life Specialist Sarah Herbek — will retire April 8 after six years of dedicated service to patients and their families. 

With a generous donation from Judy and Bobby Shackouls in October 2016, Texas Children’s Hospital first brought Elsa, now aged 7, to patients through its newly created “PAWSitive” Play Program. Since that time, the program — launched by Herbek and Elsa, and the first of its kind in the Texas Medical Center — has expanded to Texas Children’s two other hospitals in Katy and The Woodlands, adding five additional animal-assisted therapy facility dogs, including Bailey, Pinto, Cohen, Pluto and Angus. In total, through substantial funding from devoted donors, the program’s therapy dogs have visited tens of thousands of pediatric patients, initiating countless smiles among those most in need of encouragement. 

“Texas Children’s Hospital is among the best pediatric hospitals in the world and is beloved among patients and families, in large part, because of the devotion and expertise of its providers — and that includes those with both two and four legs,” said Mark A. Wallace, President and CEO of Texas Children’s Hospital. “Under the expert and passionate guidance of Child Life Specialist Sarah Herbek, Elsa has cheered, encouraged and uplifted countless patients, staff and visitors in ways very few others possibly could. I want to personally thank Sarah for her impactful work alongside Elsa for many years; I am proud to celebrate their lasting, life-changing legacy at Texas Children’s.” 

Herbek and Elsa are dedicating the final three weeks of their service at Texas Children’s Hospital to pediatric cancer patients, sitting with them, keeping them calm, and bringing joy to their stressful days. 

“Over the last five-and-a-half years with Elsa by my side, I have been inspired by the thousands of patients and families we’ve met and I am so grateful to have become part of their journeys,” said Herbek. “I have witnessed incredible resiliency that oftentimes I wouldn’t have believed if I hadn’t seen it myself. There truly is nothing I am more proud of than the growth and the impact of the PAWSitive Play Program. Years from now, I hope our wonderful patients and families will think back on their time at Texas Children’s Hospital and remember that in their darkest days, the love of a golden retriever made their experience just a little bit easier.” 

Among the inspiring milestones Herbek has observed with Elsa’s assistance, she recalls a few as especially pertinent: 

  • Witnessing a father cry tears of joy upon seeing his child smile for the first time in weeks at Elsa’s presence; 
  • Motivating a child in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) to stand for the first time after surgery when other encouragements failed; 
  • Hearing a mother share how she believes her child graduated from the PICU because of the daily dose of unconditional love she received from a dog; and 
  • Watching a child without the strength or motivation to smile or sit up do so for one more chance to snuggle in bed with Elsa. 

To celebrate the many ways Elsa and Herbek have positively impacted thousands of patients’ lives, Texas Children’s will host a celebration of Elsa with pediatric cancer patients and their families, in addition to an honorary gathering in Elsa’s and Herbek’s honor with Texas Children’s Hospital’s leadership team. 

“Our daughter has spent many months in the hospital since her diagnosis with the most recent stay being 70 days straight which included Christmas and New Year’s” said Keri Vigil, mother of Texas Children’s Hospital patient, Christiana, 14, who benefited greatly from the comfort provided by Elsa and Herbek throughout her hospitalization and recent bone marrow transplant. “There were times that Sarah and Queen Elsa were the only thing that brought a smile to Christiana’s face.  They will forever hold a special place in our hearts and we will be forever grateful for all they have done for our daughter.” 

Child Life Specialists and dogs in Texas Children’s PAWSitive Play Program serve integral roles on patients’ health care teams by helping to boost children’s moods and elevate their self-confidence, as well as decreasing their anxiety, perception of pain, and sense of isolation. The dogs are specially trained to work alongside Texas Children’s physicians, nurses, and physical, occupational and speech therapy teams, providing targeted interventions to patients from the bedside to the Cancer and Hematology Center, Emergency Center, and other patient areas. 

Herbek and Elsa are part of a larger, truly inspiring and impactful Animal-Assisted Therapy Program at Texas Children’s Hospital, expertly led by Mary Tietjens, Assistant Director of Clinical Support Services. Additional Child Life Specialists and animal-assisted therapy facility dogs who daily brighten the days of Texas Children’s patients, families, and staff include: Adair Wignet and Bailey, Shelby Bonnet and Pinto, CJ Canlas and Cohen (Texas Children’s Hospital The Woodlands), Hanna Kuhn and Pluto, and Meg Gustafson and Angus (Texas Children’s Hospital West Campus). 

Individuals who are interested in donating to Texas Children’s Hospital’s Animal-Assisted Therapy Program can do so by visiting https://texaschildrens.org/pawsitiveplaysupport.



Texas Children’s Hospital’s first therapy dog, Elsa, visits a pediatric patient to help alleviate her anxiety and provide unconditional love

About Texas Children’s Hospital

Texas Children’s Hospital, a not-for-profit health care organization, is committed to creating a healthier future for children and women throughout the global community by leading in patient care, education and research. Consistently ranked as the best children’s hospital in Texas, and among the top in the nation, Texas Children’s has garnered widespread recognition for its expertise and breakthroughs in pediatric and women’s health. The hospital includes the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute; the Feigin Tower for pediatric research; Texas Children’s Pavilion for Women, a comprehensive obstetrics/gynecology facility focusing on high-risk births; Texas Children’s Hospital West Campus, a community hospital in suburban West Houston; and Texas Children’s Hospital The Woodlands, the first hospital devoted to children’s care for communities north of Houston. The organization also created Texas Children’s Health Plan, the nation’s first HMO for children; has the largest pediatric primary care network in the country, Texas Children’s Pediatrics; Texas Children’s Urgent Care clinics that specialize in after-hours care tailored specifically for children; and a global health program that’s channeling care to children and women all over the world. Texas Children’s Hospital is affiliated with Baylor College of Medicine. For more information, go to www.texaschildrens.org. Get the latest news by visiting the online newsroom and Twitter at twitter.com/texaschildrens.