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Anchorage

Meet Grover, a golden retriever bringing calm to Alaskans anxious about their COVID-19 vaccination

Lillian Notti, 12, pets Grover the dog after she received her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on Friday at the Alaska Airlines Center. With them is Karen Loeffler, with the group NATIONAL Crisis Response Canines, who came to calm Lillian so that she could tolerate the shot. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

When Alaskans 12 and older became eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, 12-year-old Lillian Notti was sure she wasn’t getting it.

“I encouraged her to get it, but I left it to be her choice,” said her mom, Alicia Notti. “She said, ‘Absolutely not.’ ”

Lillian has a severe aversion to needles. The last time she needed shots at the doctor’s office, three people had to hold her down. This time, she was accompanied by just her mom and a 10-year-old golden retriever named Grover.

Grover and his owner, Karen Loeffler, are with the group NATIONAL Crisis Response Canines, which has teams that respond to crises and anywhere that people have stress and anxiety. Loeffler, the former United States attorney for the District of Alaska, regularly brings Grover to court to calm people when they are testifying in a trial or grand jury.

What changed Lillian’s mind about getting the vaccine was the promise of a free doughnut. “She came home from school and said, ‘My friend at school got the vaccine, and he said he got a free Krispy Kreme doughnut every day and it didn’t hurt, so I want to do it,’ ” Alicia said. “I was like, ‘You want to do it?’ ”

The next day Alicia called the Anchorage Office of Emergency Management, which had posted a photo of Grover on their Facebook page. Grover and Loeffler had visited a vaccine clinic at the Spenard Food Truck Carnival earlier in May, and Alicia asked if Grover could come to her daughter’s appointment at the Alaska Airlines Center.

Lillian sits in her mom's lap and brushes Grover's fur before her shot. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

The Anchorage OEM connected Alicia with Loeffler’s group, and Lillian sat with Grover on the floor of the Alaska Airlines Center for an hour, petting him, brushing his fur and giving him treats until she was calm enough to get the shot.

A majority of children exhibit needle fear, along with up to 20-30% of young adults, according to a pre-pandemic meta-analysis. The 2018 study noted that 1 in 6 health care workers avoided the influenza vaccine because of a fear of needles, and the authors encouraged further study of approaches that could alleviate fear during injections.

“He’s nice. I like him,” Lillian said, petting Grover as her mom hugged Heather Aronno with the Anchorage OEM. Lillian has a yorkiepoo and a dorkie at home.

Alicia Notti, left, hugs Heather Aronno after Lillian received her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Aronno is with the Anchorage Office of Emergency Management, which connected Notti with the NATIONAL Crisis Response Canines. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

“She just has this phobia,” Alicia said. “She can’t control it. She’s a really mild-mannered girl, but she just can’t help it. I don’t think we would be here if we didn’t know that the dog was coming. I don’t think she would have done it.”

Anyone in Anchorage who would like to get a COVID-19 vaccine shot and is interested in being connected with the NATIONAL Crisis Response Canines can contact the Anchorage OEM at 907-343-1401 or wwoem@muni.org. For more information about where you can get a vaccination, visit covidvax.alaska.gov.

Karen Loeffler, left, talks with Alicia Notti as Lillian Notti pets Grover. (Loren Holmes / ADN)
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