Award-winning Corgi with Pets on Wheels Encourages Cancer Patients
By Manning Lee | Photos by Caroline J. Phillips
We enter into the Infusion Center at the Cancer Center at University of Maryland Shore Regional Health together one afternoon. It’s Kate, her handler Nancy Matthews, a fellow Pets on Wheels volunteer Ruth Renkenberger, and I. Affectionately called “Kate the Great,” a four-year-old Pembroke Welsh Corgi Grand Champion Bronze leads the way.
All that’s missing are the paparazzi and camera flashes as she enters. Kate is clearly a star.
The staff recognizes her and stops what they’re doing to greet her. Kate recognizes them, too. She is calm, engaged, and focused. She knows she’s got work to do.
A staff member reaches into the cabinet and pulls out a pack of Jelly Bellies. Kate waits for a piece of jellybean with her ears at attention, sitting tall. It’s definitely part of her routine.
Next, Kate greets a woman in a chair with tubes attached to her arm receiving a chemotherapy infusion. Before I know it and at the woman’s request, Nancy hoists Kate into the woman’s lap and rewards the compliant Corgi with a second piece of jellybean. Satisfied, Kate gets comfortable in her charge’s lap. The woman warmly strokes Kate’s back and tells Nancy stories about her last three dogs. During that time, no one mentions chemotherapy — or cancer.
With a quick Corgi waddle down the hallway, we reach the radiation therapy waiting room. Kate finds a friend who Nancy recognizes and sits down beside. They’ve met here before. The woman is waiting for her husband who is being treated nearby.
She leans over, now face to face with Kate the Great. She speaks in her “dog voice” and scratches her behind the ears. Kate, her eyes fixed upon the woman, smiles with her Corgi grin.
“We are waiting until he gets well,” the waiting room woman says of her husband. “Then we’re getting a dog. We’re definitely dog people.”
She’s still petting Kate. “Dogs are so great because they speak human,” she says. “Without talking, they’re talking. I can always tell what they’re saying.”
Finished with his treatment, the man enters the room. It’s noticeable, the toll cancer has taken on him. It’s also taken one on her.
This daily visit is simple. As a visitor from Pets on Wheels, Kate’s Corgi charms cannot heal, but they can bring hope — and a meaningful distraction from the harsh realities of cancer. The pup also provides an easy icebreaker, making conversation automatic. Kate allows Nancy chance to share a nugget of hope and encouragement.
Nancy is a breeder from Cordova who’s bred Corgis for 25 years. She’s an AKC Breeder of Merit, with champions in the show ring among her breeding accomplishments. Health and temperament are important to her, as is adhering to her impeccably high written standards. As a member of the PWCCA, she signs a Code of Ethics every year.
She’s had a number of Corgis before Kate, but two very special dogs in her life were Rosy and Cora. “Cora was very accomplished in the show ring just as Kate is,” she said. “She won at all breed and specialty shows and had obedience and rally titles and nose work trials. She was a Grand Champion Bronze who also showed at Madison Square Garden. Rosy, besides being a therapy dog, participated in rally, obedience and nose work,” says Nancy. They were well rounded, setting therapeutic and behavioral standards for Kate.
Officially, Kate the Great’s registered name is GChB Coventry Reach For The Stars, CGC, THDA.“I want my dogs to have titles in the front of their names as well as in the back of their names. I want them to be good citizens because the breed has so much to give. That’s why I want Kate to be a therapy dog with Pets on Wheels,” says Nancy.
Nancy lost her husband in 2000. Less than a year later, she herself was diagnosed with cancer. “I was not a good breast cancer patient. I was angry. I regretted it and wanted a do-over. Now, I count it a privilege to help cancer patients,” says Nancy.
“Kate’s my dog, and when I see other people react to her in a positive way, it makes me feel good.”
Both Nancy and Ruth volunteer for the auxiliary also at the Cancer Center. They spend their time helping patients get from one place to the next within its many halls and rooms.
Sometimes, patients open up — but sometimes it’s their caregivers who need a little encouragement. Radiation patients’ schedules are grueling, with treatment daily for weeks on end. They are in the fight of their lives and appreciate encouragement from people with or without their pets.
Ruth recalls what it was like losing both her husband and daughter to cancer. “Wherever I went for their treatments, everyone was so kind. That’s another reason why I give back — I remember how it felt.”
Pets on Wheels of Delmarva, Inc. is a group of volunteer teams, pets, and handlers. Started in 1993, they visit nursing and assisted living homes, homes for the disabled, and schools. Talbot County now has 17 active dogs and has a total of 170 volunteers in all of Delmarva.
“We get requests to visit new places. Currently, we don’t have enough teams to fill visitation needs. We’re looking to recruit new volunteer teams. Not all pets are well-suited friends, but we have a thorough screening process,” says Ruth.
In addition to the Cancer Center, Talbot County Pets on Wheels also visits elementary schools, Candle Light Cove, and The Pines in Easton. “When we go into the schools, our teams visit first and second graders who are learning to read,” says Ruth.
“Each class gets its own dog and the children take turns reading. They really feel they can relate and talk to it. It’s nice to see the children so engrossed in their dogs. It’s been proven that reading to the dogs really helps the children learn to read because the dogs are non-judgmental and never correct mistakes. We also have dogs that visit special education classes. We see a big difference with the kids in the special education classes that you don’t get from the other kids. That’s exciting for the handlers to witness.”
While “Kate the Great” is thought of as a friendly visitor, what happens each time she enters the room at the Cancer Center provides so much more. The valuable interaction she encourages with patients begs the question: Does Kate need us, or do we need Kate? Perhaps it’s a little bit of both.
Whether they’re at the Cancer Center or any number of places throughout the Delmarva region, the Pets on Wheels dogs walk right in and lighten the mood. Dogs have an innate ability to take people off their guards. They encourage our vulnerability with one another and help us temporarily forget our troubles.
For more information about Pets on Wheels please visit, www.petsonwheelsofdelmarvainc.org.