There was a buzz of excitement in the pediatrics ward at St. Luke's International Hospital in Tokyo. Children were milling around in their pajamas with impish gleams in their eyes. Soon, they were all jostling near the door to the playroom, the little ones standing on tiptoes to peek inside.

The cause of all the fuss was neither toys nor candy from a well-wisher, but four dogs -- a toy poodle called Chiroma, long-haired dachshund Dumbo, bichon frise Mari and golden retriever Joy.

As soon as the nurses opened the doors, the children piled in one after the other, some in wheelchairs and others dragging mobile intravenous drips. They cooed and cuddled the dogs, who happily responded to all the attention, wagging their tails and licking anyone within tongue range. Some of the younger children, for whom this was perhaps a completely new experience, hung back a bit, holding on to their parents but pleading with them to go and join in petting the dogs.