By Maureen Talarico
When Dennis Wold, 60, of Cloquet, found out he was going to have to stay at Essentia Health St. Mary’s Hospital-Superior for an extended period, he feared he would lose his new service dog, Warner, a black Labrador retriever.
“My son was caring for Warner while I was here, but he lives in the Twin Cities,” Dennis says. “So visits were sporadic, just here and there, maybe for an hour.”
Companies that train service dogs spend tens of thousands of dollars on that training, so Dennis thought Warner would be reassigned, because he believed he couldn’t care for the dog in the hospital, and the dog would not be working with Dennis as it was trained. Each day he was without his companion took a toll on Dennis’ health.
“You could see him emotionally deteriorating,” says Anna Peterson, one of Dennis’ nurses, who also supervises his care team. “When he told us he was going to lose his dog, we just refused to accept that outcome.”
Dennis didn’t know that St. Mary’s Hospital believes in the healing power of animals and that Warner, service dogs, and patients’ pets are welcomed as part of their care. Peterson and Dennis’ physician, Dr. Sheri Bergeron, got on the phone to the dog trainer right away and explained how having Warner at the hospital would work just fine. Two days later, the hospital’s census went up by one four-legged, tail-wagging Labrador.
“I was stunned, just in disbelief that I could keep him,” says Dennis. “Now he’s with me all day, every day.”
At the end of the second-floor hall, there’s a note posted outside Dennis’ hospital room. Since Warner is a working service dog, there are special rules on what staff should and should not do.
“We had to learn that when Warner is working, we can’t pet him or play with him. He has a job to do,” Peterson says.
Inside the room, next to Dennis’ hospital bed, is Warner’s kennel, though he prefers to sleep cuddled up at the bottom of Dennis’ bed. He has a red blanket and chew toys on the floor for his break times. Along with the normal IVs and hospital equipment hung on the wall, now there’s a leash, waste bags, and Warner’s vest, which he wears when he’s working.
“When I put that on him, he knows it’s time to go to work. He can take my socks off, pick up anything I drop, open and close doors, even push the elevator buttons for me,” Dennis adds.
Staff have noticed an improvement in Dennis’ health since Warner’s arrival.
“That dog is critical to Dennis’ care,” says Peterson. “It would have been life-shattering for him to not have his dog.”
Warner has adjusted perfectly to the sounds and smells of a sterile hospital environment, and only got scared once since his arrival, during a thunderstorm.
“Animals offer holistic care, at its finest,” Peterson adds. “And Warner has really brought our own staff closer, since we’re all animal lovers here.”
They’ve had to adjust to the service dog’s special diet to keep him in top shape, so extra treats and rawhide chews have been eliminated. But his friendly, willing demeanor has made him a favorite among patients and staff. When Dennis is resting but Warner’s full of energy, the staff take him out for exercise, but without his vest, since they’re not certified.
“If it’s raining, we’ll play Frisbee in the gym,” Peterson says. “When Warner gets tired, he goes and lays down on the yoga mat. He’s just adorable.”
Once discharged, Dennis and Warner will live close to his family near the Cities. But until that time, he’s with his best friend, 24 hours a day.
“I’m just so happy he’s back with me, I couldn’t believe it when I saw him,” Dennis adds.
Staff are thrilled as well with their newest four-legged resident.
“As a nurse, as a dog lover, I can say I think this is one of my most proudest moments, ever,” Peterson says with a smile.