Research shows that the presence of a pet can lower blood pressure, relieve stress and improve overall well-being. One therapy dog that regularly visits Park Nicollet Frauenshuh Cancer Center in St. Louis Park may even somehow understand what patients are going through. Stetson is a 10-year-old golden retriever that was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma last year. After six months of chemotherapy, Stetson is excited to be back at work comforting others who are undergoing cancer treatment.
Charney Petroske and her husband Joe got Stetson when he was 8 weeks old. “He excelled at obedience classes,” Petroske says. “So we kept enrolling him until he received his canine good citizenship award. I’m told that’s a good indicator of whether a dog will make a good therapy pet. So we pursued therapy training as the next logical step.”
Stetson received his therapy training from Patti Anderson at the Humane Society in Golden Valley. Afterward, he tested to become certified as a pet partner. This is a requirement before serving as a pet therapy animal with the Caring Canine program at Park Nicollet.
“We have a thriving Caring Canine program here at Methodist Hospital, as well as at the Melrose Eating Disorder Institute across the street,” says Amy Lobitz, volunteer coordinator. “There are currently 16 pairs of pets and owners who come in about once a week and visit all sorts of places depending on the interests of the volunteer and the pet."
Petroske says Anderson does a good job of talking to owners about volunteer opportunities. “Addie Arko, a fellow NSTA member and Caring Caniens volunteer, helped get Stetson involved with Caring Canines, and at first Stetson and I tried a kids’ reading program. But Stetson is such a friendly dog. He wouldn’t sit on just one blanket with one child. He wanted to sit on all of the blankets with all of the children. So Northstar pointed us in the direction of hospital volunteerism. Since Methodist Hospital is nearby, we decided to go there,” she says.
Petroske praises the staff at Methodist for their support of the Caring Canine program; Stetson also appreciates the dog treats that are available at the nurses’ station and sometimes even on the janitor’s cart. “Stetson is calm and does well in a hospital setting. And since my husband and I have lost family members to cancer, volunteering at the Frauenshuh Cancer Center seemed natural to us,” she says, adding that the golden retriever frequently sits with patients while they receive their chemotherapy treatments.
Just like what happens to many unsuspecting humans, a lump was discovered on Stetson during a routine veterinarian checkup at Oak Knoll Animal Hospital. “Initially, Stetson’s cancer didn’t have a great prognosis,” Petroske says. “We were given a choice of palliative care or chemotherapy. We cried a lot"
“On our vet’s recommendation, we visited the University of Minnesota and were told that with treatment, Stetson may do well,” she continues. “We decided that if we could afford it, we would pursue the treatment option.”
Stetson couldn’t perform his volunteer duties during his treatment but he did get to play with other dogs at the U of M veterinary hospital. “Knowing Stetson had friends there made it easier for me to drop him off for his treatments,” Petroske says. “He also received acupuncture treatments in order to minimize the side effects of the chemotherapy drugs."
On October 31, 2012, Stetson went back to work—dressed in a Halloween costume—comforting others feel comforted at Methodist Hospital. “He was excited to be back and see people,” Petroske says. “Patients may change, but the staff gets to know the dogs and they were excited to see him too. Stetson was declared in complete remission in November. It was the best Christmas gift we could have hoped for.”
So, does Stetson have some special understanding of what human cancer patients are going through? We’ll never know. Still, he is a source of comfort and an inspiration. Petroske says that a patient who had been missing her dog while undergoing treatment said that Stetson’s survival gave her hope to overcome her own battle with cancer.
According to Lobitz, therapy dogs can help all kinds of people who might be lonely, sad, hurting or confused. Potential volunteers can email volunteer@parknicollet to have a volunteer coordinator outline the process for getting connected. Or visit parknicollet.com and click on “Volunteerism.”
Charney Petronske also works in cancer research, specifically blood and marrow work for Be the Match. She’s incredibly grateful to the entire oncology staff at the University of Minnesota for what they did to save Stetson.