For Dogtor Loki, comforting people comes naturally. Whenever she sees someone in need of emotional attention, she goes into “parking mode”.
“It will go up and then back up on its own, like a truck, sit on your feet and hand it back to you,” says Caroline Benzel, 32, a medical student at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. .
Loki began his therapy career in November 2019. When the virus ended in-person therapy visits, the team went virtual. Benzel filmed his dog in a pleasant outdoor setting, then chatted with patients confined to the hospital, such as those awaiting organ transplants. Virtual visits with Loki have helped them deal with isolation and despair.
As the pandemic spread, Benzel looked for other ways to help. Her pet’s rapidly growing web presence provided a perfect way to reach people. He now has over 20,000 followers for his Instagram account Dogtor Loki Therapy Rottie (@dogtor.loki) and his Facebook page Loki the Therapy Rottweiler.
Benzel wondered if she could do anything to combat the fatigue and depression among her nursing friends. She offered “hero healing kits” as a shot in the arm for frontline workers. The kits contained lip balm, skin lotion, chewing gum and other items to ease the discomfort of the ubiquitous masks. They have been distributed to everyone from caretakers to residents, to anyone potentially exposed to the virus.
Of course, there was a picture of Loki on each kit to cheer you up. The idea grew into a national campaign that raised over $100,
000 and distributed more than 7,500 kits nationwide. Other fundraising efforts followed. One brought in $5,000 to buy magazines and books for the hospital’s psychiatric unit. There were also donations of hundreds of cards and gifts to distribute to patients and staff during the holidays. It’s thanks to Loki.
Something about the 110-pound Rottie encourages people to open their purses. “She really is the epitome of a therapy dog,” says Benzel. An important part of his charm, Benzel believes, is his race.
White blouses and watermelon caps
This surprises many people. They cannot reconcile the public perception of race with the gentle, sensitive soul sitting at their feet and watching their faces. When people first meet Loki, some ask if she’s the same kind of dog as the hellhounds in the omen. Others say they thought there were breed restrictions for therapy work and that Rotties were banned.
A few moments of Loki are enough to change your mind. Tailored uniforms go a long way in making this big black dog not only approachable but comical. “The hospital was always happy to provide her with scrubs,” Benzel says. It’s hard to be too alarmed when the dog is wearing a watermelon print beanie, pink scrubs, glasses and, occasionally, a rainbow tutu.
She also has a UM volunteer badge. “People who are normally afraid of dogs will start laughing,” Benzel says. Uniforms also serve a serious purpose, especially with children who have white coat phobia (a fear of medical personnel) or who are terrified of equipment, such as an ultrasound. “We bring Loki in and they do the ultrasound on him,” Benzel explains. Seeing the procedure performed on a cute dog allays their fears. “It shows them that everything is fine.”
Benzel had lived with large dogs, including German Shepherds and Rottweilers, for most of his life. When she applied to medical school, she had recently lost a dog to cancer and thought she had a new Rottweiler. She loves the breed for its calm confidence and ability to learn and adapt to all sorts of circumstances. Their size is also a big attraction. “They are so cuddly. It’s like having a huge teddy bear,” she says.
As she waited to find out if she had entered the school of her choice, friends involved in animal rescue called her. They said they picked up two homeless Rottweiler puppies, a male and a female. Jokingly, Benzel said if they ever wanted to give one away, they should let him know. The very next day, she welcomed the female puppy into her home. That same week, she learned that she had been accepted to medical school.
A Puppy’s Purpose
Benzel took the pup on his visits to his grandfather, who was confined to the hospital for more than a month. She was impressed with how much the therapy dogs helped her, even though their visit only lasted five minutes. His grandfather liked Loki right away. He called her his small baked potato. The experience convinced Benzel to train her pup for therapy work.
Benzel’s next 18 months were devastating. She lost people she loved: her grandfather, her brother and a close friend. Loki held her steady during those sad and stressful days. “She was a really big reason, probably, honestly, one of the only reasons I ended up staying in medical school,” she says.
Raising a Quilt
Between classes and studying, Benzel made sure her pup got the training he needed to achieve his goal: a rock-solid partner who could handle sights, sounds and movement in all sorts of environments. Service dog socialization checklists were an essential part of Loki’s upbringing. Benzel found them online, printed them out, and tried to go through as many articles as possible each week. Loki “was pretty amazing from day one,” Benzel recalled.
Naturally comforting, she’s been known to crawl onto a bed for a cuddle. The team went through the training and quickly cheered up in the hospital. Since then, they have won numerous accolades including the 2020 AKC Paw of Courage and Top Dog AMC (Animal Medical Center).
Benzel saw the power of his therapy dog on their first work Christmas. They were called to the bedroom of a teenage girl who had suffered a brain injury in a car accident. She was deeply depressed, refusing to go to physical therapy or even get out of bed. Then Loki entered the room. When a nurse asked the patient if she wanted to hold the leash and walk the dog, she answered with an enthusiastic yes.
As Loki and Benzel were leaving, the girl’s mother ran after them. “She just started hugging me and crying, saying her daughter hadn’t smiled since the accident.” After that day, the girl began to improve and was soon ready to go home.