TAMPA — Volunteers at Moffitt Cancer Center campuses are always easy to spot, with their engine-red vests set against crisp white shirts. It’s even easier when they’re walking dogs in color-coordinated harnesses that have “Therapy Dog” embroidered into the side.
The mere sight of these dogs commands people to smile and bend to their level. And the dogs graciously receive this attention — relishing the back-to-back pets, sometimes resting their soft heads against someone’s leg or sticking out an inviting paw. They never get distracted. They rarely get tired.
Moffitt’s pet therapy program has been around for over 30 years, according to volunteer coordinator Kelsey Stewart — long enough to be referred to as the center’s “crown jewel.” The program brings certified therapy dogs to visit and comfort patients on Moffitt’s campuses.
Teddy, a tiny gray Maltipoo, was the oldest therapy dog at Moffitt’s Magnolia campus near the University of South Florida on Tuesday. At 11 years old, he still manages to stand for minutes at a time on his hind legs — searching around for rubs and cut-up Pupperoni. His owner, 76-year-old Phil Scheidt, said he probably spends a third of his time at Moffitt on those little legs.
Scheidt and Teddy drive over every Thursday from Dade City to Tampa to make the rounds between visitors, staff and patients. When they arrive, volunteers are given a list of patients who requested pet therapy for the day. Typically, this is around five to 10 patients, Stewart said.
Dogs and their owners aren’t only confined to patients’ rooms. They roam hallways, offices and waiting areas. Outside of the rooms, 69-year-old Marlene Csunyo said she follows her 5-year-old Australian Labradoodle’s instincts on who to go up to and where to stop. The brown, shaggy-haired dog named Jolie will let anyone give her affection but has a soft spot for kids and people in wheelchairs.
“She doesn’t know a lot of tricks … being a lovebug, that’s her only trick,” Csunyo said.
Being a therapy dog isn’t for every canine. At Moffitt, keeping calm is key, which can be difficult in a sometimes hectic and noisy environment. The dogs can’t bark, steal food, jump on anyone or even lick, the volunteers said. For Jolie, ignoring the temptation to devour nearby food was the hardest part of becoming certified.
Alan Preston and his 8-year-old West Highland White Terrier, Finlay, have been volunteering at Moffitt campuses since 2017. In the six years since they’ve been coming, Preston estimates they’ve visited over 4,000 patients. That number gets higher after factoring in those they encounter in other areas of the center.
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Around the volunteers’ necks hang tally counters to keep track of the number of interactions they have. Preston also likes to adorn his vest with pins inviting conversation, such as one tagged “Therapy Dog Dad.” The dogs also don attire like special-made badges and, in the case of Finlay and Teddy, small ties.
All of this is done in the hopes of giving someone a reason to smile while they’re there. And it works. “I feel better already,” said one woman who stopped to pet Finlay.
Many of the volunteers have personal connections to Moffitt and their mission of fighting cancer. Scheidt’s late wife was a patient and volunteer there. Csunyo’s mom battled breast cancer. Last October, Preston was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and scheduled his surgery at Moffitt. After years of talking to patients, he found himself on the other side of the experience. He fought back tears talking about it.
“Coming to help people helps me,” he said.
Now, Preston is a certifier with one of Moffitt’s partners, Project Pup. He leads certification sessions at the hospital and helps funnel therapy dogs through Moffitt’s program. Dogs don’t have to be certified at Moffitt to apply for the pet therapy program, and owners can get their dogs certified at Moffitt without applying to volunteer. If they decide to stick around, that’s simply a bonus, Stewart said.
The program, which once boasted over 50 dogs, is still trying to regain its footing following a decrease in volunteers due to the pandemic. Stewart’s goal is to make it “bigger and better than it’s ever been.” While the Magnolia campus attracts the most volunteers and dogs, all of their locations — including Moffitt’s new hospital on McKinley Drive in Tampa — participate in the program. To learn more about the pet therapy program, visit Moffitt’s website. For more information on Project Pup’s therapy dog certification sessions, visit its website.