For Dogtor Loki, comforting people comes naturally. Whenever she sees someone who needs emotional TLC, she goes into “parking mode.”
“She’ll walk up and then kind of back herself, like a truck, and sit on your feet and give her back to you,” says Caroline Benzel, 32, a student at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, in Baltimore.
Loki started her therapy career in November 2019. When the virus shut down in-person therapy visits, the team went virtual. Benzel videoed her dog in a pleasant outdoor setting and then chatted with patients confined to the hospital, such as those awaiting organ transplants. Virtual visits with Loki helped them cope with the isolation and despair.
As the pandemic spread, Benzel looked for other ways to help. Her pet’s web presence, which was rapidly growing, offered a perfect way to reach people. It now includes more than 20,000 followers for her Dogtor Loki Therapy Rottie (@dogtor.loki) Instagram account and her Loki the Therapy Rottweiler Facebook page.
Benzel wondered if she could do something to combat the fatigue and depression among her nurse friends. She came up with “Hero Healing Kits” as a shot in the arm for frontline workers. The kits had lip balm, skin lotion, chewing gum, and other items to ease the discomfort of the ever-present masks. They were distributed to everyone, from custodians to residents, anyone who was potentially exposed to the virus.
Of course, there was a picture of Loki on each kit to boost spirits. The idea grew into a nationwide campaign that raised more than $100,000 and distributed more than 7,500 kits nationally. More 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 all thanks to Loki.
Something about the 110-pound Rottie encourages people to open their purses. “She just really is the epitome of a therapy dog,” says Benzel. A significant part of her charm, Benzel believes, is her breed.
White Coats and Watermelon Caps
This comes as a surprise to many people. They can’t reconcile the public perception of the breed with the gentle, sensitive soul sitting at their feet and gazing into their faces. When people first meet Loki, some ask if she is the same kind of dog as the hellhounds in The Omen. Others say they thought there were breed restrictions for therapy work, and Rotties were banned.
Just a few moments of Loki are all it takes to change minds. Custom-made uniforms go a long way to making this big black dog appear not just approachable but comical. “The hospital was always happy to provide scrubs for her,” Benzel says. It’s hard to be too alarmed when the dog is wearing a watermelon-print scrub cap, pink scrubs, glasses, and, sometimes, a rainbow tutu.
She also has a UM volunteer badge. “People who are normally scared of dogs will start laughing,” Benzel says. The uniforms also serve a serious purpose, especially with children who have white-coat phobia (a fear of medical personnel) or are terrified of equipment, like an ultrasound. “We bring Loki in, and they do the ultrasound on her,” says Benzel. Seeing the procedure done on a cute dog eases their fears. “It shows them that it’s perfectly fine.”
Benzel had lived with big dogs, including German Shepherd Dogs and Rottweilers, for most of her life. When she applied to medical school, she had recently lost a dog to cancer, and thought of getting a new Rottweiler. She loves the breed for its calm confidence and ability to learn and adapt to all kinds of circumstances. Their size is also a big attraction. “They’re so cuddly. It’s like having an enormous teddy bear,” she says.
As she waited to learn whether she had gotten into the school of her choice, friends involved in animal rescue called her. They said they had picked up two homeless Rottweiler puppies, a male and female. As a joke, Benzel said that if they ever wanted to give one away, they should let her know. The very next day, she welcomed the female puppy into her home. That same week, she learned she had been accepted to medical school.
A Pup’s Purpose
Benzel took the puppy on her visits to her grandfather, who was confined to a hospital for more than a month. She was impressed by how much therapy dogs helped him, even if their visit was just five minutes. Her grandfather loved Loki right away. He called her his little baked potato. The experience convinced Benzel to train her puppy for therapy work.
Benzel’s next 18 months were devastating. She lost people she loved—her grandfather, brother, and a close friend. Loki kept her steady through those sad, stressful days. “She really was a big reason, probably, honestly, one of the only reasons that I ended up staying in medical school,” she says.
Raising a Comforter
Between classes and studying, Benzel made sure her puppy got the training needed to reach her goal—a bombproof partner who could deal with sights, sounds, and movements in all kinds of environments. Service dog socialization checklists were a critical part of Loki’s education. Benzel found them online, printed them out, and tried to get through as many items as possible each week. Loki “was pretty incredible from day one,” Benzel recalls.
A natural at comforting, she’s been known to crawl up onto a bed for a cuddle. The team sailed through training and was soon lifting spirits in the hospital. Since then, they have earned a slew of accolades, including the 2020 AKC Paw of Courage and the AMC (Animal Medical Center) Top Dog.
Benzel saw the power of her therapy dog on their first working Christmas. They were called into the room of a teenage girl who had suffered a brain injury in a car accident. She was deeply depressed, refusing to do physical therapy or even get out of bed. Then Loki padded into the room. When a nurse asked the patient if she wanted to hold the leash and take the dog for a walk, she gave 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 started to improve and was soon ready to go home.