Most Tuesday mornings, Pamela Milam, manager of volunteer services at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Denton, makes a list of patients who are open to therapy services that night.
Every week, she switches between the third and fourth floors of the hospital and asks patients if they want a visit from Benny, a 2-year-old English goldendoodle. She even shows them a photo when asking if they want him to visit their rooms.
“Of course, when everyone sees his picture, they go crazy,” Milam said. “Sometimes after a visit with Benny, they get a burst of energy or they’re a little less tired, and Benny always makes them smile.”
While the pet therapy program at the hospital started in 2016, it was on hiatus for a few months after the previous volunteer dogs retired. In July, Benny and his owners Robyn and Trey O’Connell started making Tuesday night visits.
Benny is a registered therapy dog through Pet Partners, a nonprofit organization that helps connect volunteers with opportunities for their therapy dogs.
The O’Connells were considering getting a puppy a few years ago, and as they started to research breeds, their eldest son gave them a book about therapy dogs. After reading, they decided they wanted to pick a puppy who had the right characteristics to volunteer, they said.
“We read the book, and I thought, ‘I want to do that,’” Robyn said. “We’re empty-nesters and our kids are in college, so it’s something we can do together.”
As they searched for a new puppy, they stumbled upon a breeder in Iowa with English goldendoodles and began talking. The next day, Trey flew to Iowa and drove back home to Argyle with Benny.
They started with obedience training at CMC Dog Training before Benny advanced to testing from Pet Partners — from online classes for the O’Connells to observations and additional training. In May, Benny became certified through the nonprofit organization.
While Benny thrived in training sessions, he was still a puppy — at one point, he ate a hole through the door to the laundry room.
This year, the family started with visits to the Ronald McDonald House in Fort Worth, where they still visit twice a month, as well as Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth. Working with kids has been one of the most rewarding parts of the experience, Trey said.
“Sometimes the kids don’t want to walk or get up, but then they’ll take his leash and want to walk him,” he said. “That’s the kind of stuff that makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something when you leave.”
The couple have also done some special events where therapy dogs are requested, and are working to add Medical City Denton into their rotation as well. For Robyn, a Denton ISD kindergarten teacher, the volunteer work has become a way to relax and reconnect.
“I enjoy it. It’s my down time and decompressing time for me,” she said.
“It’s getting better and better the more we do it,” Trey added.
Currently, Benny is the only therapy dog who visits Texas Health Denton, Milam said. However, the hospital would love that to change and is looking for more volunteers. Those interested can learn more by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Our Texas Health mission is to improve the health of the people in the communities we serve, and we feel like pet therapy is part of that,” she said.