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Patient reunites with service dog in Superior

Dennis Wold and Warner reconnect at St. Mary’s Hospital-Superior. Courtesy of Essentia Health

When Dennis Wold, 60, of Cloquet found out he was going to have to stay at Essentia Health St. Mary's Hospital-Superior for an extended period, he feared he would lose his new service dog, Warner, a black Labrador retriever.

"My son was caring for Warner while I was here, but he lives in the Twin Cities," Wold said. "So visits were sporadic, just here and there, maybe for an hour."

Companies that train service dogs spend tens of thousands of dollars on that training, so Wold thought Warner would be reassigned, because he believed he couldn't care for the dog in the hospital, and the dog would not be working with Wold as it was trained. Each day, he was without his companion took a toll on Wold's health.

"You could see him emotionally deteriorating," said Anna Peterson, one of Wold's nurses, who also supervises his care team. "When he told us he was going to lose his dog, we just refused to accept that outcome."

Wold didn't know that St. Mary's Hospital believes in the healing power of animals and that Warner, service dogs, and patients' pets are welcomed as part of their care. Peterson and Wold's physician, Dr. Sheri Bergeron, got on the phone to the dog trainer right away and explained how having Warner at the hospital would work just fine. Two days later, the hospital's census went up by one four-legged, tail-wagging Labrador.

"I was stunned, just in disbelief that I could keep him," said Wold. "Now he's with me all day, every day."

At the end of the second-floor hall, there's a note posted outside Wold's hospital room. Since Warner is a working service dog, there are special rules on what staff should and should not do. "We had to learn that when Warner is working, we can't pet him or play with him. He has a job to do," Peterson said.

Inside the room, next to Wold's hospital bed, is Warner's kennel, though he prefers to sleep cuddled up at the bottom of Wold's bed. He has a red blanket and chew toys on the floor for his break times. Along with the normal IVs and hospital equipment hung on the wall, now there's a leash, waste bags, and Warner's vest, which he wears when he's working.

"When I put that on him, he knows it's time to go to work. He can take my socks off, pick up anything I drop, open and close doors, even push the elevator buttons for me," Wold said.

Staff have noticed an improvement in Wold's health since Warner's arrival.

"That dog is critical to Wold's care," said Peterson. "It would have been life-shattering for him to not have his dog."

Warner has adjusted perfectly to the sounds and smells of a sterile hospital environment, and only got scared once since his arrival, during a thunderstorm.

"Animals offer holistic care, at its finest," Peterson said. "And Warner has really brought our own staff closer, since we're all animal lovers here."

They've had to adjust to the service dog's special diet to keep him in top shape, so extra treats and rawhide chews have been eliminated. But his friendly, willing demeanor has made him a favorite among patients and staff. When Wold is resting but Warner's full of energy, the staff take him out for exercise, but without his vest, since they're not certified. "If it's raining, we'll play Frisbee in the gym," Peterson said. "When Warner gets tired, he goes and lays down on the yoga mat. He's just adorable."

Once discharged, Wold and Warner will live close to his family near the Cities. But until that time, he's with his best friend, 24 hours a day.

"I'm just so happy he's back with me, I couldn't believe it when I saw him," Wold said.

Staff are thrilled as well with their newest four-legged resident.

"As a nurse, as a dog lover, I can say I think this is one of my most proudest moments, ever," Peterson said with a smile.