Therapy pets provide love, support to Kansas City patients: ‘I truly think it's a blessing'

Posted at 9:37 AM, Aug 15, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-16 13:52:41-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Hospitals, nursing homes, and cancer treatment centers aren't typically places of joy. They're also not typically places for dogs. But when a dog does walk into one of those spots, the whole building changes.

“I don't know why the magic happens, it just does," Gary Turner, a therapy pet handler, said.

Turner has been a therapy pet handler for 17 years. He and his wife, Penny, have four dogs they work with, and they visit people all over the Kansas City area.

“I was never raised around dogs until I met her,” Turner said of his wife.

Now, Gary spends lots of time with dogs, including his Bernese Mountain Dog Spencer, doing something pretty important.

“Our primary objective is to make people feel better,” Turner said.

Today, Vickie Donovan is the recipient of — as she calls it — unconditional love. Vickie has been fighting pancreatic cancer since 2016. It’s non-operable, so she’s a regular at Olathe Health Cancer Center.

“I think it's a blessing,” Donovan said, with a therapy dog on her lap. “I truly think it's a blessing that an animal can make you feel as good as you can feel. They are just so precious.”

But the dogs aren’t necessarily here to make people smile. Feeling better doesn't always look like that.

“We've literally had people who hug Spencer, bury their face in his fur, and cry, just to let it go,” Turner said.

“This is a scary place, cancer is scary, and for a moment in time they get to forget about that,” said Kerrie Koepke, a nurse navigator at Olathe Health.

“I really believe in my heart that they know that they're making you feel better,” Donovan said.

Just look in Spencer's eyes, and you'll believe it too.


Do you think your dog, or your cat, might be good at this kind of work? If they're at least 1 year old and can follow basic commands, they might be a good candidate.

Click here to learn more about Pet Partners in Kansas City.

PART 2: Think your pet has what it takes to be a therapy pet?

UPDATE: Since this story was posted, 41 Action News has learned that Spencer passed away unexpectedly last week.