A New Twist on Pet Therapy

Whisper and Wolf enjoy one another’s companionship

Whisper will soon be visiting local nursing homes and assisted living facilities

By Debbie Eisele

Through their work with veterans and residents at nursing homes and assisted living facilities, Dave Benhoff and Molly Brooks recognize the incredible value of pet therapy in patient’s and resident’s lives. Pet therapy is not by any means new to our area, and its advocates realize its value in the way it provides a little happiness to those who are ill, anxious, or otherwise need assistance.

Dave and Molly initially worked together on veteran outreach programs at another hospice provider. In the spring of 2016, Molly left to join Capital Caring, a nonprofit hospice that services Fauquier and Prince William County, and Dave decided to join Capital Caring in the fall of 2016 to head up the volunteer services and embark on expanding existing veterans services.

“The veteran initiatives we started together were amazing and I wanted to continue with those efforts,” said Molly. “I am glad he came aboard and we have the chance to work together again to assist local veterans.”

Dave also spends a lot of his time with patients at nursing homes and assisted living facilities. His therapy dog, Nikita, is just as well known as Dave is. However, Nikita may soon have a friend to help infuse some joy into patients lives. The friend’s name is Whisper, and no, she is not a dog.

While Dave was at Fauquier Health and Rehabilitation Center and some other local facilities, there were visiting miniature horses that came to the residents. “These small horses bring smiles to residents faces, just as Nikita does,” Dave shared. However, Whisper is not a horse either. She is a miniature donkey.

Yes, a donkey. Whisper’s journey into pet therapy began with a friend of Dave’s who rescued a mother-daughter donkey duo. The mother’s name is Eloise and the daughter, Whisper. Owners of pet therapy dogs know they are always greeted with lots of affection, and Whisper is no different!

Dave decided to give Eloise and Whisper a permanent home and thought how fantastic it would be to travel to Amerisist, Fauquier Health and Rehabilitation Center, Brookside, and some other local facilities with Whisper. “She has a great personality. She loves to rub against you and nuzzle, just like a dog,” shared Dave. “She’s like a big stuffed animal.”

Whisper, the pet therapy donkey will provide a great deal of sweetness to those she visits.

Through his work with veterans, Dave sees many voids in their lives that need to be filled, and so does Molly. They saw their opportunity to share something that fills one of those voids. “Pets are such a part of many of our lives, and in long term care it’s not there anymore for these patients. To bring in animals, like a donkey, helps patients go back in time to remember happier things. It lets them reconnect and experience those moments again,” said Molly. In our area, many people have been very involved with horses in their lives, which makes Whisper the ideal companion. These horse-loving long-term care residents love the dogs, but something like a miniature horse or donkey can really fill this huge, horse-sized empty hole in their hearts. This is a need that Dave and Molly realized they could help to fill.
The goal of a therapy animal is to distract individuals from their concerns. Dave explained that most patients just connect with animals. “They love on them and the petting and snuggling provides a therapeutic effect,” shared Dave.

Whisper will be trained and ready to start visiting local facilities soon. “Sally Petty, a friend of mine, trained Nikita and is willing to help with Whisper. She has also worked with training miniature horses that visit facilities,” shared Dave. Training is all about getting the animals used to the environments. Sally said, “I have minis [miniature horses], and the training is really about taking the animals out and about. Getting them in and out of the trailer and getting them acclimated to going in and out of doors is most of the process.”

“We will have to get Whisper used to wearing boots, expose her to being indoors, acclimate her to traveling around and getting in and out of a trailer,” Dave said. “However, our biggest hurdle at this time is not having a trailer.” Currently, Dave and Molly are searching for a trailer to be used to transport Whisper to places where she can be of assistance. The trailer is an essential part of Whisper’s training. Whisper is young, approximately one and a half years old, and training is best completed while an animal is maturing.

Molly and Dave have been searching for a donor to willing give a trailer for this endeavour. They are hoping they will find one soon, and be able to put Whisper to work on putting smiles on the faces of those they assist.

Capital Caring is a palliative care, counseling, and hospice services nonprofit organization serving Fauquier and Prince William Counties, as well as all of northern Virginia, Washington D.C., Maryland, and parts of West Virginia. For more information contact Molly Brooks at mbrooks@capitalcaring.org or, to support any Capital Caring offerings, please visit https://www.capitalcaring.org/join-us/donate/.



In order to train Whisper, Capital Caring needs to acquire a trailer. Specifically, they are seeking an eight to ten foot stock trailer with open ventilation. A mounted spare tire as well as a light for the interior would also be ideal. If you have a trailer you would like to donate, please contact either David Benchoff, MEd volunteer services coordinator, at dbenhoff@capitalcaring.org or Molly Brooks, RN, BC-CHPN executive director, at mbrooks@capitalcaring.org.


Debbie Eisele
About Debbie Eisele 62 Articles
Debbie Eisele is a freelance writer and the Community Outreach Coordinator for Hero’s Bridge, a nonprofit serving older veterans. She lives in Warrenton with her husband and twin daughters.

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