Pet Therapy Dogs Offer Comfort and Compassion


Shirley Sitter and her partner, Tega Mae, volunteer at Cherry Meadows, a ThedaCare Hospice Facility at Peabody Manor. ThedaCare Hospice offers assessment and training for those interested in taking part in pet therapy services.

February 20, 2020

ThedaCare Hospice Provides Training in the Fox Cities and Rural Communities

APPLETON, Wis. – Tega Mae walks through the hallways of Cherry Meadows at ThedaCare’s Peabody Manor with a calm demeanor, patiently waiting to put a smile on someone’s face. You’ll find Tega on a leash, sporting her blue volunteer vest. Tega is a pet therapy dog. 

“I knew she was special from the moment I saw her sweet face,” explained Tega Mae’s owner, Shirley Sitter. “She has something about her that instantly makes others feel calm.”

Shirley and Tega volunteer throughout the Fox Valley visiting hospice patients as a ThedaCare At Home Hospice therapy dog team. Shirley said that she never thought of volunteering with pet therapy until she had extra time after her children left for college and Tega came into her life. The pair completed the comprehensive training and testing program through ThedaCare At Home Hospice and became an official therapy dog team.

“What I learned during the class is that Tega will give me signs,” said Sitter. “She will look away and turn her head when she is beginning to feel overstimulated. I’m her partner and it’s important that I am her advocate.”

The hospice pet therapy program is made possible through the generosity of donors of the ThedaCare Family of Foundations. Funding provides training for handlers and their dogs, training resources and therapy dog vests. There are more than 40 therapy teams actively volunteering.

Assessment and orientation for pet therapy providers is completed in stages. First, an initial canine and handler assessment is conducted. If the handler and dog meet ThedaCare At Home’s strict criteria, they are invited to attend training. Each handler/dog team must complete ThedaCare At Home Hospice volunteer training and Canine Comfort University, which includes handler-specific training and testing for Canine Good Citizen and Alliance of Therapy Dogs.

“We enjoy meeting all of the people,” said Sitter. “Some days, it’s providing a warm experience for families of those in hospice care. Other days, we visit the nurse’s station. You never know who you will meet, and who really needs to feel happiness that day.”

Sara Wesoloski, BSN, RN, ThedaCare Manager of Hospice and Palliative Care explained the calling to pet therapy for hospice patients is not just about dogs.

“It’s mostly about a heartfelt and patient human who chooses to share his or her pet with a person and family who is experiencing the end of a life,” said Wesoloski. “It creates a special bond between the pets and those families.” 

Most volunteers can expect about one to two visits per week, on a day that works for the family and volunteer.

“You get more out of it than you put in,” said Sitter. “While we can brighten someone’s day, the families do the same, even more for us. We feel very fortunate to be there, interacting with the families.”

Sitter said she and Tega will continue volunteering until Tega gives her the sign that it’s time to slow down. For now, Sitter doesn’t see that happening anytime soon.

“It’s been a great experience,” said Sitter. “I am more than happy I reached out to learn about the program and all the benefits that are provided.” 

Therapy dog assessments and Canine Comfort University training will be held this spring and fall in the Appleton, Shawano, Waupaca, and Berlin areas. To set up an initial assessment of your dog with Molly Johnson of Canine Comfort, please call 920.716.1890 or email mjohnson@caninecomfort.us.

To help support continued financial needs, you can make a gift online at thedacare.org/donate or send contributions to ThedaCare Family of Foundations, 1818 N. Meade Street, Appleton, WI 54911, and indicate Pet Therapy and the location to restrict funding to in the memo line.