Make no bones about it: These dogs are a breed apart.
The University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) honored therapy and service dogs during Paws to Honor: UMB Service and Therapy Dog Awareness Day on June 13 in which “dogtorate” degrees were “confurred” on the companions of three recent graduates: University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Caroline Benzel, MD ’23, and therapy dog Loki; University of Maryland School of Pharmacy’s Paola Urbistondo-Jimenez, PharmD ’23, and service dog Kylo Red; and University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law’s Courtney Bergan, JD ’23, and service dog Kiera.
While other universities have honored service dogs alongside their humans during commencement ceremonies, including Seton Hall University in May, UMB’s ceremony is believed to be one of the first in the U.S. to be held separately by a university to honor the companions who accompany students to class and offer comfort to patients at hospitals and others in need.
Dressed in regalia, UMB President Bruce E. Jarrell, MD, FACS, presided over the event on the Health Sciences Research Facility III patio, giving special recognition to Benzel and her 5-year-old Rottweiler nicknamed “Dogtor” Loki, for their work at the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC).
In virtual therapy sessions with UMMC front-line workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, Benzel noticed the wear and tear that personal protection equipment was causing. She started Dogtor Loki’s Hero Healing Kits, distributing much-needed supplies such as lotion, powder, Vaseline, lip balm, instant coffee, and tea to front-line workers, with Loki as the face of the effort. Loki and Benzel, who raised over $100,000, have received numerous awards for their work, including the American Kennel Club Paw of Courage Award and the American Rottweiler Club Heroism Award.
“After seeing the impact of Dogtor Loki and Dr. Benzel, the University of Maryland Medical Center expanded its therapy dog program,” Jarrell said. “Loki has clearly had a tremendous impact on people’s lives, and this wouldn’t have been possible without her friend, Dr. Benzel.”
Jarrell then asked Loki, who was wearing her doctor’s coat and a mortarboard, for her paw to present her with the Dogtorate of Medicine and also awarded her a special medal.
Benzel, who hopes to continue her therapy work with Loki during her residency in family medicine at West Virginia University in Harpers Ferry, joked that while she is Loki’s owner, she sometimes feels like her manager, PR person, trainer, and masseuse.
“My family said they thought it was special that my dog was way more successful than I’ll ever be,” she said to laughter. “And I told them, one year of medical school is seven dog years, so she probably should have a PhD as well.
“It truly has been an honor to meet so many amazing people at the University of Maryland and for them to welcome us with such open arms,” she continued. “A lot of times having a Rottweiler that is a working dog can come with a little rocky territory, but Baltimore has a very open personality.”
She said she was sad to leave the University of Maryland community but hopes to come back and volunteer.
Broad Scope of Therapy Work
Before the event, Benzel recounted two memorable and meaningful patient interactions with Loki at UMMC. Loki comforted a woman who was alone by her dying mother’s bedside because other family members were traveling from a distance to the hospital.
“Loki ended up spending six hours with her head on her lap so the woman wouldn’t be alone,” Benzel said. “It shows that there’s a broad scope of what you can do with therapy work. It’s not just being there when they’re doing well but also the worst times.”
She also described how Loki helped a teen at Christmas who was injured in a car accident and was not doing well emotionally.
“She really missed her friends and family and her dog and home,” Benzel said. “The moment Loki walked in the room, the girl’s whole demeanor changed. She was willing to start doing physical therapy. She ended up jumping out of bed. Her recovery improved drastically from that moment.”
Kerry Sobol, MBA, RN, director of patient experience at UMMC, said Benzel made an impact on the hospital’s therapy dog program, which now includes nine teams.
“The pandemic was such a stressful time for everyone. Having someone like Caroline helping us build our program and make a difference every day was not only effective, but also built such a warm and friendly relationship that continues today with many, many people at the hospital. She has quite the following,” Sobol said.
Pooja Bhatnagar, MS, OTR/L, senior psychiatric occupational therapist at UMMC, was accompanied by her therapy dog Remy, a German shepherd who started seeing patients last year.
“Caroline and Loki were one of our first duos to come visit our psych units regularly. So it was with her support and mentorship that I’ve started going down my own path,” said Bhatnagar, who intends to earn an animal therapy certification to expand the program further at the hospital.
‘Something to Celebrate’
The ceremony continued with Jarrell recognizing recent graduates Urbistondo-Jimenez and Kylo Red and Bergan and Kiera with a Dogtorate of Pharmacy and Juris Dogtorate, respectively.
“Paola is starting her career as a pharmacist and hopes to bring visibility to the medical center providers and service animals of their own in health care settings,” Jarrell said. “Courtney has shared that Kiera has helped to embrace their disability and to live independently in the community.”
Urbistondo-Jimenez, who learned that morning she had been accepted to a compound pharmacy fellowship in Boston, said after the ceremony that being honored was unexpected but joyful.
“I’m excited that disabilities are not seen as a weakness but something to celebrate, living your life and being successful with a disability,” she said. “It’s nice to have these kinds of events that show disabilities don’t stop you and don’t define you, and we have tools like dogs to help us through it. I’m really happy that I had this. I was able to have him throughout my journey and all the acceptance throughout the whole campus.”
Urbistondo-Jimenez said Kylo Red, a 3-year-old goldendoodle, was her pet when her physician suggested training him as her service dog since he was still a puppy. He was trained during the pandemic and later accompanied her to classes, exams, and experiential learning.
Bergan’s service dog, Kiera, a 6-year-old labradoodle, nearly stole the show as she took the degree from Jarrell in a completely acceptable way: with her mouth.
Bergan, who will be a public service law fellow working with Disability Rights Maryland on community inclusion, said Kiera was trained on a college campus.
“It was nice to have an opportunity for her to get acknowledged for all her hard work,” said Bergan, who has had Kiera for five years.
Diane Bernier of Fidos for Freedom, an organization that provides trained service dogs to people with disabilities, educated the crowd about how to act around service dogs.
“In approaching a service animal, we ask that you do not interact with the service animal. Do not pet it. Don’t make direct, continuous eye contact or talk to it because you will be distracting the dog from their job,” she said. “If you want to find out about the animal — and I think we all love it when people ask us about our dogs — just talk to the handler.”
Bergan said the education and awareness component of the day was helpful.
“It’s helpful to give the public an idea that they’re working, and they’re not deprived. Kiera is actually more upset when she’s not working. She loves to work,” they said.
Jarrell concluded the ceremony by reminding the University community that UMB Police and Public Safety has a comfort K9, Poe, who visits students experiencing exam stress, faculty and staff who need a break, and those who are coping with tragedy or trauma. Poe and his handler, PFC Anthony Summers, were unable to attend the event.