Donors, volunteers make pet therapy program “paw”-ssible

Melissa Varner
May 12, 2021
A man in a red shirt and black pants holds up a treat for a pet therapy dog as an onlooker takes a picture.
Warren Onken and Tank providing tail wagging happiness at Charleston International Airport pre-COVID.

Before you heat up your grill this summer, heed this advice from MUSC pet therapy volunteer Warren Onken: Throw away the steel bristle brush you use to clean your grill. It’s how he wound up as a patient instead of visiting patients at MUSC with his pet therapy dog, a golden retriever named Tank.

“I didn't go back and actually clean the grill of the brush bristles,” Onken said. “I cooked a couple of hamburgers and they adhered to the meat. And now I'm in the hospital with steel bristles in my gut.”

Although he had only been a patient for two days, Onken had already had several visits from Elsie, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel, and pet therapy volunteer Tamera Dengler; golden doodle Jaxson and MUSC Pet Therapy Program Coordinator Cathy Bennett; and golden retriever Samson and pet therapy volunteer Krista Durham.

A man in a hospital gown rubs the top of a golden retriever’s head during a pet therapy visit. 
Onken rubs the top of Jaxson’s head during a visit.

“It was wonderful because I missed my dogs,” Onken said as he rubbed the top of Jaxson’s head. “You can feel the weight of your problems being transferred to them.” Bennett describes it as a “Calgon” moment. “Calgon, take me away” was the catchphrase for a popular TV commercial that featured a woman relaxing in a tub full of Calgon bubble bath. 

“We're not coming to touch you, to administer any kind of medical assistance, whether it's an injection or medication,” Bennett explained. “We’re just there to ‘Calgon, take you away’ and to give you that little moment where we can talk about just about anything and everything.”

An MUSC employee in a blue shirt kneels in front of a pet therapy dog and puts her head in his fur for a hug. 
An MUSC employee kneels to get a “hug” from therapy dog Jaxson. 

Pet therapy dogs play a major role in reducing stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness, Bennett said. They’ve also been shown to lower blood pressure. While there are proven health benefits, a visit from an MUSC pet therapy dog is not covered by insurance. However, it won’t show up on a hospital bill, thanks to the volunteers and donors who make the program possible.

Donations pay for basic training and outfit each volunteer team with a fanny pack and necessary supplies, like nonalcoholic hand sanitizer. Regular hand sanitizer can be too harsh for sensitive snouts. When a therapy dog gets a whiff of it, they often back up. That can be devastating for a child, who may think the dog doesn’t like them, said Bennett.

“I found some hospital approved nonalcoholic hand sanitizers and they're not cheap,” she said. “I go through those by the thousands.”

A trading card with a picture of a golden retriever named Tank laying on a blue couch is stapled to a bulletin board in a hospital hallway. 
Tank’s trading card is one of dozens featured in a hallway on 6 West at University Hospital. 

She also gives each volunteer team a pack of pet therapy trading cards to share. Each pet therapy dog has a card with their name and picture on the front and fun facts on the back, like their “barkday” (aka birthday) and favorite food. It can be a great ice breaker with patients. 

“That's a talking point that you can use with a child,” Onken explained. “‘You like ice cream? Tank likes ice cream too!’” They’re popular with children who collect them and with hospital staff, who proudly display them in their units and hospital hallways.

Donations also support a popular annual event: the Blessing of the Dogs. MUSC pet therapy dogs are blessed during the ceremony, while former patients and staff share testimonials about the program’s impact. “It’s a way to celebrate our volunteers and helps them feel appreciated, recognized and valued,” Bennett said.

Reverend blesses several dogs 
The Rev. Herman "Frank" Harris says a prayer for two of MUSC's pet therapy dogs.

In the fall, pet therapy volunteers will receive additional training because of a $5,040 donation. The two-hour session will focus on understanding the body language differences between your dog as a family pet and your dog as a therapy dog. It’s the first of hopefully many specialty training sessions Bennett wants to provide to her 95 pet therapy teams.

“What we do would not be possible without our donors and volunteers,” Bennett said. “Every single gift is so appreciated, and your support is immeasurable.”

Onken and Tank offer their “tanks” as well. “We appreciate anything that helps us continue this program. Thank you!”  

About the Author

Melissa Varner

Keywords: Thank You Notes