Buckeye Paws therapy-dog program helps Wexner health-care workers de-stress

Megan Henry
ThisWeek group
Buckeye Paws therapy dog Shiloh, a 3-year-old golden retriever, stands with his owner, Mary Justice, and fellow therapy dogs in front of Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center in December.

When Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center launched a therapy-dog program nearly a year ago to help staff members unwind after stressful situations, officials had no idea just how important it would become.

The program began only a few days before the first COVID-19 coronavirus case was confirmed in Ohio. 

“We didn’t have any clue in March that what we would be launching would have such a significant impact on the people we care the most about,” said Mary Justice, a handler of one of the dogs in the program, called Buckeye Paws, and associate executive director of patient-care services and clinical transformation.

Dogs in the program serve the medical center’s faculty, staff and students within its Stress, Trauma and Resilience program, or STAR. The dogs are certified through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, and the program follows that organization's guidelines. 

“The idea behind the program was really to give our staff a respite,” Justice said. “Some way to have a little moment in their day when they can smile, when they can disengage from the intensity of the work they do every single day.” 

Buckeye Paws therapy dogs (from left) Brienne, Ellie, Shiloh and Radar rest in front of Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center in December.

Buckeye Paws currently has four dogs, each belonging to a Wexner employee: Brienne, a 3-year-old yellow Labrador retriever, belongs to Beth Steinberg, associate chief nursing officer; Ellie, a 7-year-old German shepherd, belongs to Emily Lewis, a surgical intensive-care-unit nurse; Radar, a 6-year-old Labrador retriever, belongs to ReNea Owens, associate director of rehabilitation services; and Shiloh, a 3-year-old English cream golden retriever, belongs to Justice.

Shiloh became an internet sensation in November after Dr. Shari Dunaway snapped a few photos of him and posted them to her Twitter account with the caption, "My hospital hired an employee whose only job is to go around saying hi to other employees while they work." 

By the next morning, the photo had more than 6,000 likes and was shared on various social-media platforms including Facebook, Instagram and Reddit. 

“It was really funny and exciting to see Shiloh become so famous overnight,” said Dunaway, a first-year neurology resident at Wexner. 

My hospital hired an employee whose only job is to go around saying hi to other employees while they work pic.twitter.com/WWXNeEiWne

— Shari Dunaway, MD (@ShariDunawayMD) November 20, 2020

Dunaway first met Shiloh in August when she was working on palliative care services, where she typically sees patients at the end of their lives. 

“It's really exciting to see him in the hospital just randomly in the hallway during some difficult days at work,” she said.

Since their initial meeting, she always makes sure to pet Shiloh whenever she runs into him.

“He’s definitely my favorite co-worker, obviously," the 26-year-old said. “When you’re walking in the hallways and everything that you’ve been seeing all day has been pretty sad and you see this furry animal smiling at you in the hallway just randomly or out of the corner of your eye, something inside you just instantly lights up."

Buckeye Paws is in the process of trying to get more dogs, with hopes of having 10 to 12. The program has a recruiting process and is looking for applicants who already have dogs. People outside of Wexner can apply to the program, which requires a temperament test and training, said Aimee Mitchell, Buckeye Paws program manager. 

Buckeye Paws has a fund set upto pay for collars, harnesses, patches and quarterly training once pets become part of the program. It's up to the dog's handler to pay for initial training before becoming part of the program. The dog's handler also pays for an Alliance of Therapy Dogs membership, which costs $40 a year.

From left, Mary Justice, Beth Steinberg, Emily Lewis and ReNea Owens walk their therapy dogs – Shiloh, Brienne, Ellie and Radar – outside Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center in December.

“It’s one of those programs that it’s so simple that it’s profound," Steinberg said of Buckeye Paws. "You can have staff that are having an extremely bad day. You bring a dog into the situation, it breaks down every barrier. You see people hug the dogs. You see a lot of tears many times.”

The dogs are allowed to visit all Wexner Medical Center campuses and departments except perioperative care, procedural care and certain floors of the Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital at Ohio State University.Departments can request a visit from the Buckeye Paws dogs, something that has seen a significant uptick since Shiloh’s fame. 

Wexner has a Pet Pals Program that visits patients in the hospital, but it has been suspended since the start of the pandemic. Dunaway said she likes working at a hospital that has therapy dogs exclusively for the hospital staff.

"If your physicians, your nurses and your health care workers aren’t happy at work, you may not have ... happy ... patients, so if you focus on your health care workers and make sure that they can thrive and work in their environment and be happy, then in turn your patients will also be happy," she said.

mhenry@dispatch.com 

@megankhenry