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Tar Heal Paws dog, Shep, retires after 2 years of service in UNC Hospitals

Shep on one of his weekly visits at UNC Hospitals. Photo by Jenna Miller.

Earlier this month, one long-time volunteer made his last visit to UNC Hospitals: 12-year-old golden retriever Shep. 

For the past two years, therapy dog Shep has been volunteering at UNC as a part of the Tar Heal Paws program, alongside his owner Bill White. 

They joined the program in February 2017, after hearing about a Rex Hospital therapy dog from a friend who felt Shep could make a similar impact. White and Shep were first certified by national therapy organization Pet Partners, and then underwent a separate training to volunteer at UNC as a Tar Heal Paws therapy dog. 

“Shep passed the test with flying colors. I think I barely passed,” White said. “He's just so laid back and calm that he had no trouble with that.” 

White, who adopted Shep when he was eight weeks old, said Shep’s personality and “gentle soul” made him a particularly good therapy dog. 

“I really don't think he has a mean bone in his body, I've never really seen him react in a negative way toward another person or even another dog,” White said. “He's just got a really good nature about him.” 

He said he felt the time he has spent at UNC Hospitals with Shep, while challenging, has been “certainly rewarding.”

“The days I did it were, I mean, they're not easy at all,” White said. “You're in a hospital and you go through a lot of different emotions. But at the end of the day, I think the experience is so rewarding, and that you have an opportunity to make people feel a little bit better just for a little brief time, at least, that it makes it worthwhile.” 

Jodie Skoff, Tar Heal Paws volunteer coordinator, said that since 2015, the program has expanded to allow them to take on more teams and to place therapy dogs in different areas of the hospital.

“We didn't used to have dogs that would go into the neural ICU, and now we have a dog that goes there weekly,” Skoff said. “That would have been unheard of a number of years ago.”

White said he and Shep largely spent time in the N.C. Cancer and UNC Children’s Hospitals, places he said “seemed like a good fit” for his team. Aside from acting as therapy dogs for patients, both Skoff and White said the dogs can have a significant impact on staff as well.

“Anytime a therapy dog appears on our unit, it's just this like weird magnet of people, whether that's patients or staff or whomever, head in that direction,” said Mallory Lexa, a clinical nurse on the oncology floor at the Cancer Hospital. 

Lexa said these moments can offer a respite in an otherwise busy and difficult day.

“Whether it's Shep or any other therapy dog, it's just this fun little moment in time and your busy 12, 13, 14-hour shift that just brings a smile to a lot of people's faces,” Lexa said. 

Skoff also said apart from providing emotional support, the therapy dogs have had physiological effects on patients, causing blood pressures to decrease. Some Children’s Speciality Clinic patients have even asked to set up appointments depending on which dog was going to visit on what day, Skoff said. 

Lexa also noted the dogs serve as a unique and simple therapy for patients.

“It's not another transporter in the room to take them to a CT, it's not physical therapy in the room to work them out when they're already really tired, it's not your nurse to hand you more pills,” Lexa said. “So when that dog walks in the door it's just, ‘Oh my goodness, a dog in my room.’”

Skoff said not all dogs are able to do the work done by these therapy animals, especially given the impact they have on patients and staff.

“They know that they've got a job and it's what they do, but they're also exhausted after because it's emotional work for them,” Skoff said.

White said he decided to have Shep retire from the program because he noticed his mobility was slowing.

“I hated it,” White said. “I actually think he enjoyed doing what he did, I really do. But I just think it was time for his sake.”

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Although Shep’s time as a volunteer at UNC Hospitals has ended, White said he hopes to perhaps train his son’s young golden retriever, Cheese.

Currently, Shep is taking advantage of his retirement and sleeping a lot, White said.

“He's still loving life, moving around pretty well, and hopefully he'll be around for quite a bit longer,” White said.