Event gives round of ‘a-paws’ for Animal Therapy

October 07, 2022
A female police officer laughs as a fluffy dog approaches
Shylah Murray of the Charleston Police Department laughs as she is greeted by one of her many fans. Photos by Sarah Pack

Hey you. Yes. You. The one who keeps getting distracted by all the dog photos around this story. We get it; pups are cute. But words can be, too! 


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I mean, those words are totally adorable and probably a very good boy! Sure, they’re technically symbols, and I’m betting whatever device you’re looking at has made them look more like a melted hippopotamus but ... *sigh.* You know what? Just look at the dang photos. It’s not even a fair fight. When you're done, we’ll be right here, ready to tell a story about those lovable furry creatures.

collection of three photos, the top is the mayor being licked on the face by a dog, the second shows the crowd listening on as Cathy Bennett speaks from a podium outside and the third shows Bennett giving a badge to 10 year old Karim Azizi 
Top, City of Charleston mayor John Tecklenburg takes kissing babies a little too far, while below (from left), Cathy Bennett addresses the crowd before awarding 10-year-old Karim Azizi with his very own MUSC Health ID badge.

You good? Great. Let’s start this puppy.

Every year, during that magical two-week stretch in Charleston when the humidity is low, the temperature is 75 degrees, and the sun doesn’t set before 4 p.m., there is a special event just outside the front doors of the Medical University of South Carolina. For the past seven years, MUSC has held its annual Blessing of the Therapy Dogs event on Oct. 4, a day honoring the birthday of Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals – and, just as importantly, the hard work of all of MUSC Health’s pet and human volunteers.

“Today we celebrate these beautiful dogs and their people, who come day after day to a job that only they can do. And they do it really, really well,” said Cathy Bennett, Therapy Animal coordinator for MUSC Health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says pets “provide invaluable health benefits to their human companions.” Studies have shown that pets can lower your blood pressure, cholesterol, pain levels and, most importantly, the feeling of loneliness.

To put it plainly: Dogs can cheer you up when days get ruff.

And for people like Hannah Ann Grace, there are plenty of opportunities for cheering up. Grace and her family moved to Charleston two years ago to be closer to MUSC so she could receive weekly treatment for a rare autonomic nervous system disorder. Grace, who was scheduled to speak at the event, but was too ill to attend in person, shared through Bennett that the therapy dogs are what keeps her going through some of her darkest times, giving her something to look forward to during the long hours in the infusion clinics.

“Whether it’s the ones I see every week or the ones I see less frequently, they always leave me feeling a little better, even on the really bad days,” she said. 

In addition to buoying spirits, dogs also can inspire. In fact, one 10-year-old was so in awe of the pups and their handlers that he pledged to donate a portion of his monthly allowance to the program. Karim Azizi, dressed in the trademark red volunteer polo and (non-trademark but super rad) red and white Air Jordans, handled himself with the grace of someone three times his age as he received his very own MUSC Health badge as well as a place in the newly formed Honorary Canine Therapy Crew. 

The gathering of several hundred (some hairier than others) couldn’t help but to catch some of Azizi’s infectious good nature. Among them was Shylah Murray, chief of staff of the Charleston Police Department (CPD), who was on hand to announce a new partnership between her department and the Therapy Animal Program. Effective immediately, Bennett and her crew of nearly 90 therapy dogs and handlers, would be available to accompany the CPD to community events and, when requested, visit the staff at their Lockwood Boulevard station – all in the hopes of alleviating stress and bringing more smiles to people all across the Lowcountry. 

“The average person will experience two critical incidents in a lifetime,” Murray told the crowd. A critical incident is defined as any event or situation that creates a significant risk of substantial or serious harm to the physical or mental health, safety or well-being of a person. “An average police officer, over a 20-year career, will see over 800.” 

So if you think the past 2 1/2 years have been hard on you, just think about the men and women in blue. They, just as much as anyone, could use the affection of a big, snuggly dog – or even one that’s a little Husky. 

A pastor blesses a large dog lying down in a wagon 
Rev. Herman "Frank" Harris blesses Bear and his plus one, Kyle Kelly.

Also on hand was City of Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg and MUSC Health Charleston CEO David Zaas, M.D., both of whom celebrated the program and all of its benefits. In addition to impassioned words from the aforementioned pet therapy advocates, the event featured food (hot dogs, naturally), dog treats, dog toys, even a kissing booth where people could get a smooch from a pooch. 

But the biggest prize had to be snagging a copy of the 2023 Therapy Animal calendar, featuring some of the most huggable pups along with some of their most appreciative patients, doctors and nurses. Some of the photos were heartfelt, others were silly, but you can rest assured they were all worthy of the pages of Vanity Fur. Danielle Scheurer, M.D., MUSC Health System chief quality officer, aka Miss January, was even on hand to shake hands and paws and of course, sign autographs. 

The event culminated with the Rev. Herman “Frank” Harris and the Rev. George M. Rossi blessing all of the pups in attendance.

In all, it was a great celebration, one that showcased the hard work of MUSC Health’s Volunteer Services team as well as Bennett herself, who, naturally, after a long day on her feet finally took a moment to sit down, relax and focus on what really mattered. 

After all, her dogs were barking.