One of the last things you would expect to see in a cancer treatment area is a big, affable black dog with a hot pink bow on her head. But Pepper, a five-year-old goldendoodle, has become a very welcome and much sought-after fixture at The Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine.
Of course, Pepper is no ordinary dog or just someone’s pet on the loose. She’s one of the specially-trained therapy dogs tasked with bringing smiles to cancer patients, their families and staff. She and owner Patrice Stanley were certified by the nonprofit Duo Dogs Inc., which operates the Touch program that trains volunteers and their dogs to visit hospitals, cancer treatment centers, nursing homes, hospice houses and other health care facilities. Duo receives community grant support from The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital.
“I’m so happy to see you!” says patient Cheryl Poynter when Pepper trots into the room. The irresistible golden retriever-poodle mix immediately recognizes Cheryl and goes right to her side, tail wagging vigorously as the patient reaches down to give the dog some loving pats.
“I just rave about her,” says Cheryl, who keeps a photo of Pepper in a binder she carries with her. “Just keep bringing Pepper back.”
Cheryl’s affection for Pepper is just one example of why the popularity of therapy dogs is on the rise.
“There is definitely a growing interest by institutions to have visits from therapy dogs,” says Peggy Musen, executive director of Duo. “Dogs undoubtedly bring comfort and joy into the lives of people who are struggling. Not just the patients, but also their families. I also believe the dogs bring a reprieve to the staff as well. And for the handlers, it makes them feel good about giving back and helping someone be less anxious about a treatment or diagnosis.”
Duo was originally called Support Dogs Inc., which began in 1981 and launched the Touch program in 1989. Currently, there are 257 Duo certified Touch teams operating in St. Louis-area health care facilities. Of those, about 60 teams visit four different Siteman locations and two teams visit Evelyn’s House, the hospice facility on the campus of Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital.
To apply to the Touch program at Siteman, teams must complete a 6-week obedience class and pass a temperament evaluation. Once accepted into the program, they must continue their education by completing a 4-week prep class followed by a 5-week adult certification class. At that point, the dog and handler will be certified as an official team and can work at Siteman and other facilities. Pepper proved to be a real natural.
“She’s a social butterfly,” says owner Patrice. “Pepper gets so excited when she knows she’s coming to Siteman. She loves it.” So do the patients and staff whose eyes light up when Pepper arrives. “You can see how much they enjoy it. It takes their mind off why they’re here,” Patrice says.
Kara Dubs Wilke, Siteman’s volunteer program coordinator who oversees the Duo program at the center, says it’s as if there’s a chemical response when people see a therapy dog at the hospital.
“It changes them,” Kara says. “Sometimes our patients don’t feel like talking to another person, but they want to pet a dog.”
When Kara first met Pepper, she wondered if the energetic therapy dog was going to be too rambunctious for the job. But Pepper was an instant hit.
“She’s fun and playful and that really helps,” Kara says, adding that she gets numerous requests from both patients and staff for visits specifically from Pepper. Some patients even schedule their treatments so the Touch therapy dog will be there at the same time.
In fact, the goldendoodle is so popular that an out-of-state friend of a Siteman patient had a poster made from the dog’s photograph and titled it “Ode to Pepper.” Another admirer, an intern in the Arts + Healthcare program at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, created a felted replica of the therapy dog.
“It brightens my day every time I see Pepper,” says Lindsay Lococo, a Siteman patient. “There’s a reason they call them therapy dogs.”