Therapy Dogs

There is a small group of workers at Nash UNC Health Care that have a rock star-like following when they do their rounds visiting patients and offering therapy.

Cooper, Tucker, Elsie, Lily, Ziva, Molly and Birdie are pet therapy dogs at Nash UNC and always leave the people they cross paths with feeling better than they did before. Handlers include Tosha Aldridge, Don Campbell, Peggy Wendling, Tamera Dengler, and Lisa Holland.

Nash UNC volunteer coordinator Leslie Spencer said the canines that take part in the Caring Canines of Nash UNC Health Care offer patients and hospital employees a brief reprieve from whatever kind of stress they’re feeling.

“There’s just something about petting that soft head and seeing those kind eyes that just makes you feel better. It’s not something you or I or even a doctor can do for a patient. It’s a unique therapy that only a dog can offer,” Spencer said.

Dr. Michael Holland, a Boice-Willis nephrologist, sometimes lets a pet therapist accompany him when checking on patients at Nash UNC.

Holland said most people respond in a positive manner to a friendly, approachable dog.

“I believe that seeing a therapy dog triggers pleasant memories that can bring about an emotional response, which may be relaxing and calming,” he said. “Many studies have demonstrated the benefits of positive emotional attitudes upon healing, even down to the level of the immune response to disease or injury. Every little bit of help that can be added to our ability to care for patients is welcome.”

Holland’s wife, Lisa, and the couple’s registered therapy dog, Birdie, regularly visit patients at Nash UNC.

Birdie did her training as a puppy before her first birthday and then went through the training and testing process after she turned one. She’s been a registered therapy dog since December 2017 and visits nursing homes, schools and Nash UNC.

Lisa Holland said Birdie is tall enough to let bedridden patients lean over and pet her.

“She knows the ‘Paws Up’ command, which is when she puts her paws on the side of the bed to allow for easy access for petting,” Lisa Holland said. “She is trained not to lick, but loves getting petted.”


Nash UNC only allows registered therapy dogs to visit patients and staff in the building and they must be pre-approved for the Caring Canines of Nash UNC.

Peggy Wendling, handler for Tucker and Cooper, a pair of golden retriever therapy dogs, said training is rigorous for the dogs and handlers. She said both Tucker and Cooper started the process with obedience training before they took the AKC Canine Good Citizenship exam. She said the exam is a good barometer to determine if a dog will be a good candidate for therapy work.

“All three of us are trained, tested and registered through PetPartners Organization, a national company. We have to retest every two years. Pet Partners and Alliance of Therapy Dogs are the two organizations that Nash UNC Health Care works with to provide pet therapy services,” Wendling said. “I think that the training process is rigorous so you can be certain that the therapy dogs are obedient, pleasant and safe to be around.”

Amy Winham, director of service and operational excellence at Nash UNC, said pet therapy is a great addition to the services Nash UNC Health Care provides.

“The pet therapy program brings much joy as we strive to create a compassionate and caring experience for all patients and families we serve,” she said. “We have found that pet therapy also fosters employee engagement as staff look forward each week to the visits.”

Tamera Dengler and her registered pet therapy dog Elsie have been offering comfort and joy since 2013.

Dengler said it takes a lot of training and time to offer high-quality pet therapy. She said she takes the time to visit patients with Elsie because she’s seen it can make a difference to patients.

“Recently, we were visiting a group setting of about eight patients and Elsie was making her rounds walking to each patient, one at a time,” Dengler said. “One patient seemed disinterested and Elise sensed this and passed him by. On her second pass by each patient, this patient reached out his hand toward Elsie. I noticed his smile and a tear running down his cheek. Another patient remarked that was the first time she’d seen him smile that week.”

Good girl, Elsie.

Nash UNC is always looking for more registered service and therapy animals to serve as volunteers. If you’d like more information about the Caring Canines of Nash UNC, contact Leslie Spencer at (252) 962-8118. Nash UNC does not participate in the training or official registration process for any service animals.