ALBANY, New York (AP) _ Jane is scampering around the children's cancer center, nuzzling a toddler who had a brain tumor removed, when 14-year-old Alexia walks in.
Girl and dog both flop on the hospital floor. Alexia scratches Jane's belly two-handed and gives a big smile. Jane licks Alexia's face.
The two met when Alexia was horribly sick with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, when she was suffering through chemotherapy, when she was sad and wanted a friend. Alexia couldn't get out of her hospital bed then, so Jane would curl into bed with her.
``She saved the day,'' Alexia says, rubbing Jane's thick black coat near her ``I AM A THERAPY DOG'' tag until Jane's handler, Teri Conroy, finally walks her over to another child who's in for treatment.
Therapy dogs, so often associated with nursing homes, have expanded their range. The trained animals now comfort people everywhere from disaster sites to hospitals, schools, even prisons. A recent trend is for dogs like Jane to work in libraries, helping children practice reading aloud. The dogs provide an attentive, non-judgmental audience for young readers still building up their confidence.
Therapy dogs were dispatched to Ground Zero after the Sept. 11 attacks and to the Gulf Coast after Katrina. They have been a big hit at facilities serving emotionally troubled or learning disabled children.
At Green Chimneys in Brewster, students not only read to dogs to build up their confidence, they train dogs too.
``It works for some difficult students you have trouble reaching,'' says spokeswoman Deborah Bernstein. ``It's a wonderful way to reach them and motivate them to do better in school.''
Therapy Dogs International has registered more than 12,000 dogs and 9,500 handlers. Another nationwide animal group, Delta Society, has about 8,000 ``pet partner'' teams registered, most of them the person-and-dog variety, but also teams featuring cats, rabbits, pigs and other animals.
At Albany Medical Center, doctors and nurses, figuring a bit of affection is good medicine, rely on volunteers like Conroy and dogs like Jane, a 2 1/2 year-old Portuguese water dog. Her coat is trimmed tight with a rounded bang over her button eyes that gives her a look of constant attentiveness. Aides and nurses are always saying ``Awwww!'' when she passes in the hall.
Jane likes to lick faces and will hop on hospital beds to get to one if invited. When a boy on a pediatric ward greets her wearing a surgical mask, Jane licks the mask. The boy puts on purple gloves to scratch Jane's tummy.
``Ohh! You don't want me to stop!'' the boy says. ``You're so cute!''
Jane is part of a troupe of about 14 dogs working the halls of the medical center. Among the others are Honee, Muddy, Darla, Rocky, Viva and Honor, a snow-colored, 130-pound (59-kilogram) Great Pyrenees who wears sunglasses.
They have their own bedside manner. Jane is bubbly. Seamus is laid back. Honee, a 9-pound (4-kilogram) coton de tulear, can be picked up. Honor cannot, and sometimes naps during group therapy.
Dogs are dispatched around the hospital based on requests from medical workers. Sometimes, three dogs at one time are visiting the young, the old, the recovering and the terminal. Dr. Richard Sills, director of Albany's Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders, notes that the dogs cheer up children and make hospitals more welcoming.
``The demand is always more than the supply,'' says Kelly Morrone, manager of volunteer services. ``Never enough dogs.''
Conroy carries a list of patients to visit, but will also walk through wards repeating, ``Does anyone want a dog visit?''
A boy comes out to pet Jane, rolling along his intravenous unit. A mother beckons Jane to her teenage son's bed, where he is dozing. Jane hops on. He drapes an arm around her and shuts his eyes.
Jane is popular at the pediatric cancer center, where she has seen many of the children through hard times. Alexia, in remission now, used to get visits in the examining room and in her bed when things were touch and go.
``She would be out of it and she would be so weak and she would be talking about the dog coming by,'' says Alexia's mother, Pam Eubanks. ``This was like the only thing when she was sick _ and she was sick constantly when she got diagnosed _ this was the only thing that raised her spirit.''
Therapy dogs can be any breed, but dogs certified by Therapy Dogs International must meet strict standards for disposition, obedience and appearance. As part of her test, Jane had to walk past a cookie left in the open and navigate calmly through a jostling crowd.
Conroy is content being Jane's anonymous partner _ or ``the other end of the leash,'' as she calls it. Melting away pain, even for a moment, makes it worth it for her. She lights up when talking about patients in remission, like Alexia. Still, the work can be anguishing. Her faces clouds over talking about children who didn't get a happy ending and the obituaries she has read.
``There are days when I cry on the way home,'' she concedes.
Jane also seems attuned to patients' needs. She will jump up and lick the face of one patient who revels in it. Then she is reserved after a nurse whispers to Conroy that there's a newly diagnosed girl sitting quietly with her mom. She could use a visit, the nurse says.
Jane pads up to the teenager. The girl gives Jane an absent pat on the head. Conroy chats with mother and daughter about dogs. Jane leans in close to the girl, who strokes her back, gently working her fingers through the thick coat.
``For five minutes she was asking me about my dog and was talking about her dog,'' Conroy says, ``and not thinking about all that chemotherapy.''