Doggone Better

the canine components of Mayo’s Paws Force help stressed patients, family members, and caregivers

Barbara Arnold


Bella and Teddy, two little white fido furballs of fun, and their owners have experienced firsthand the benefits of pet therapy – for patient, pet, and volunteer – at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire. More pets and volunteers are needed now that Mayo’s Paws Force program is expanding to Mayo’s Barron, Bloomer, Menomonie, and Osseo locations.

“Health concerns can be stressful, and pet therapy visits make a world of difference for many of our patients and even our staff,” says Vicky Zehms, director of volunteer services. “These wonderful dogs and their handlers also make house calls through hospice.”

Bella, a six-year-old Havanese, and her owner Cassie Meinholz, a high school math teacher in the Fall Creek School District, volunteered during the summers of 2012 and 2013, before the birth of her son Hudson in 2014.

“When my husband Kevin and I first got Bella, pet therapy wasn’t even on our radar,” she says. “We trained with her at Rude Dog U, where her temperament and skills caught the eye of the owner, who thought she would be great because none of the dogs on Mayo’s team at that time were small – most were golden retrievers and Labradors – and few could do tricks.”


Bella passed the AKC Canine Good Citizen exam and hospital-setting simulation tests with flying colors. And Cassie successfully completed the special volunteer and dog-handling training.

“Bella loved doing pet therapy. For two solid hours, she was the center of attention,” Cassie continues. “Apparently, it was very tiring for her as well because afterwards, she would sleep the entire afternoon.”

“We visited Pediatrics several times, and kids would unintentionally tug on her while petting her, and she took it calmly,” shares Cassie. “She was a good dog before pet therapy, and the patience she exhibited during her time in the program has carried over to her interactions with our son.”

Terri Gardow, athletic assistant at North High School and mom to three teenaged boys, and Teddy, her two-year-old bichon frise and Shih Tzu mix, completed obedience classes at Anne Braue’s Canine Training Center. Terri and Teddy together earned certification last fall through Pet Partners, the national therapy animal program that trains and screens volunteers and their pets. The program was established to ensure that “both ends of the leash” – people as well as animals – are well-prepared for any setting.

Terri first became aware of pet therapy when accompanying her mother for chemotherapy for brain cancer at HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital, where “having a dog there just took our minds off the situation.”

Their first ever pet therapy visit was the most memorable. “Teddy and I were walking in the hallway, and suddenly Teddy veered towards a patient’s room,” she recalls. After she explained and asked for permission to enter, they came upon a patient near death surrounded by family. “One family member shared that the patient loved dogs, and (asked if) could Teddy be placed on the bed next to him. Teddy immediately snuggled near one of his hands, and while the family was reminiscing about his pet dogs, I noticed a tear falling from one of the patient’s eyes.”

Does your dog have the right stuff to be
a member of the Mayo Clinic Health
System Paws Force?

Answering “yes” to the questions below may help you decide. For more information, call Volunteer Services at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire at (715) 838-3262.

1. Is your dog friendly and well-behaved?

2. Does your dog enjoy meeting new people of all ages?

3. Is your dog reliable and friendly around other dogs?

4. Has your dog completed several levels of obedience classes in the past two years? (Note: Classes must be positive reinforcement-only training programs.)