Meet Dirk the Therapy Dog and his trainer, Stephanie

Dirk the therapy dog at Mercy

Stephanie Ensley is a veterinarian at Sugar Creek Animal Hospital in Bentonville, where she works with companion animals.

She’s also a volunteer for Mercy Health’s Therapy Dog Program and makes all the difference to kids — and adults — who are often under a lot of stress.

We interviewed Stephanie about Dirk the Therapy Dog and her role as a volunteer:

How long have you been volunteering in general and at Mercy?

Dirk and I have been volunteering as a Pet Partner Team since early 2013. We started at Mercy when the Therapy Dog program was introduced in 2015.

My hospital volunteer work dates back to teenage years as a “Candy Striper” and later an adult auxiliary member. It’s a great way to combine my love of Therapy Dogs with my passion for hospital volunteer work. Dirk also works with Arkansas Children’s Hospital/Lowell, with a children’s library program and nursing/residential living centers.

What do you typically do during visits?

Our visits at the hospital vary. Our main job is to help people smile or relax. Petting and brushing can be part of that. Some days we listen to people tell stories about important dogs in their lives. Sometimes Dirk practices his social skills, like shaking hands when he meets new people.  Dirk has been known to just nap and be present for a while.

He also visits with staff members. Health care providers have a lot of responsibilities and demands. Sometimes we can provide a short, take-a-breath-and relax break in a hectic day!

How old is Dirk and how did he get to be a therapy dog?

Dirk is 5 years old now. He started visiting hospice friends when he was just six weeks old. He would take a nap on their laps! When he got a little older, he went through formal obedience training and then took his official therapy dog test when he was almost 2. He continues to participate in enrichment interactions and training. Dirk is formally evaluated for certification every two years.

What is his favorite treat or toy?

Dirk is a big fan of miniature marshmallows, goldfish and apples. He likes dog treats too, but we use human safe treats when we visit so that if one of our friends forgets the treat is for Dirk that is not a major problem.

Dirk’s favorite toy has to be his dragon….he sucks on it like a binkie when he goes to sleep at night. Just as a parent would do with a favorite binkie … we always have a backup!

Anything else we might be curious to know about you and Dirk?

Dirk is one of 3,044 Golden Retrievers across the U.S. enrolled in the Golden Retriever Lifetime Health Project. Much like the American Cancer Society Study in humans, these dogs are tracked for the life of the dog….data is recorded about how they live and blood samples are banked every year to look at health and potential markers for cancer that affects so many dogs. Arkansas has 21 Golden Retrievers enrolled in the study!

On a lighter note — little known fact — Dirk has been to 35 county court houses in Arkansas. Dirk and I are both native Arkansans and we stop at county court houses as we drive around our home state. Dirk is a great traveler!

Thanks for letting us interview you, Stephanie. And Dirk! May you continue to uplift and bless everyone you encounter along the way :)

5 Tips for Better Car Trips with the Family Dog

By Denise Holmes, pet trainer and blogger at

The holiday travel season is fast approaching, and soon everyone will be hitting the road. If you’re planning to take the family dog with you, there are some things you need to consider to make your trip go smoothly and ensure that you and your dog are welcomed guests.

travel with dogsI’m a list maker. So, let’s start there. Make a packing list of all the things your dog uses on a daily basis: leash, collar, harness, food/water bowls, food, treats, toys, chews, bed, and crate. All these things need to go with you. In addition to the daily things, you may want to take a brush and some dry shampoo or deodorizer, cleaning supplies for accidents, and a copy of your dog’s shot records including the contact info for your personal vet. If your dog is on medication, make sure all prescriptions are refilled before you go.

Next are the things you may or may not consider. Where and how will your dog ride? How long can your dog ‘hold it?’ Did you pack a travel bowl and an extra bottle of water for the pooch? How will you handle your dog’s stress on the road or in a new place?

First, let’s talk about car riding safety. This is a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ advisement. Your dog should be restrained, either in a crate or a seatbelt/car harness. If in a crate, then the crate needs to be in a ventilated location so your dog doesn’t over-heat or get cold, and it needs to be secured. If in a harness, the harness should not only restrain movement, but also maintain the dog’s stability. For the safety of your dog and other passengers, you don’t want your dog launching off the seat.

The Center for Pet Safety tested harnesses, and only 7 brands were deemed good enough to move on to crash testing. Of those, Sleepypod was the Top Performer for 2013. We have not used it personally, but I have looked at their website, watched the crash test videos, and based osleepypodn that, referred the product to several happy clients. They make both enclosed devices and harnesses.

You can visit the Center for Pet Safety and read the reviews here: and/or check out Sleepypod at

If you’ve never traveled with your dog in a restraint system, then it would be a good idea to take a couple of car rides to allow your dog a chance to get used to the idea before heading to Grandma’s house in Timbuktu.

Speaking of Timbuktu…I know Henri can pretty much ‘hold it’ forever, longer than I can anyway, and if you’re traveling with kids, it’s likely that you won’t need extra stops for the dog. Just make sure he gets out of the car, stretches, and potties when everyone else does. If you have a young dog, you might want to play a bit, too. Throw the ball or something. The kids can watch a video or color, but the dog is pretty much a captive (so give him something to chew). This is also a good time for a water break. You did pack the travel bowl and a bottle of water, right?

If a hotel stop is in your plans, then make sure you’ve verified that the hotel is dog-friendly and you know the rules. They are ALL different, and some are more accommodating than others.

Once you get where you’re going, it’s important that your dog is a nice house guest. Do what you can to make him comfortable, but keep in mind that not everyone likes dogs (I mean, I don’t know any of them, but you might). If it’s an option, create a set-up that mimics home. For us, that means I travel with Henri’s blanket and bed. He sleeps on his bed at night, but during the day, he likes to be on my bed. I spread his blanket across it to minimize dog hair on someone else’s comforter. If your dog normally sleeps in your bed, pack a dog sheet.

rescue remedyLastly, travel can be stressful. Help your dog cope by keeping this in mind and investing in a couple of products I LOVE. The first is Rescue Remedy, for homeopathic stress relief. I don’t go anywhere without it, and it isn’t just for Henri; I take it, too. Just a few drops can help take the edge off when adjusting to travel, a new place, or terrible in-laws.

comfort zoneThe second product is Comfort Zone with Dog Appeasing Pheromones. It comes in both a spray formula and a plug-in diffuser. I use the spray in the car or on Henri’s bedding. You can also spritz a bandana and tie it around your dog’s neck. Once we get where we’re going, I pop the plug-in into the wall in our room for another dose of comfort.

Loading up the family and hitting the road can be a good time, or at the very least, a good story. Hopefully, with a little planning and a few helpful tips, your dog won’t be the problem. I can’t help you with your husband. :-)

Follow Denise’s adventures on her blog,, as she travels the world with her beloved Henri.

Pet Parenting: How to take the dog on your Disney trip

Guest post by Denise Holmes, dog-trainer and blogger at

Recently, I wrote a post for Travel Tails recounting a trip to Orlando with my dog, Henri. In the retelling of that adventure I mentioned that next time, I needed a visit to the Happy Place.

disneyworld1As in, Disney World.

Yes, I’m one of those.

That got me thinking. EPCOT Food and Wine Festival is September 19th – November 10th, and Christmas, my all-time favorite time to visit Disney EVER, is coming. I was in need a of a return visit, and I wanted to take Henri with me. But taking a dog on a Disney trip? How does that work?

The parks are obviously kid and family friendly, but what if your family includes your dog? (I’m 43 and single; Henri is the sole benefactor of my maternal instincts. I don’t expect him to be able to go to the parks with me, but I don’t want to board him for a week either.)

Fort Wilderness, for RVs and camping, is the only on-property Disney resort (‘on property’ means ‘on Disney property’) that allows dogs. We don’t have an RV, and camping in November, even in Orlando, isn’t really what I had in mind.

Well, as a former cast member, I was sure I could solve this little problem with some research. I knew Disney had a dog boarding, grooming, and daycare facility. Daycare isn’t really Henri’s favorite thing in the world, but it did solve the problem of what he’d be doing all day while I was traipsing through the parks.

Best-Friends-Pet-CareBest Friends Pet Care is a large chain pet care facility with 42 locations in 18 states, including one at Disney World. This is good news for guests, because the old kennels were just that. Kennels. The new facility is located on property, and much improved. It definitely meets what I envision Disney standard to be.

You can choose from a wide range of services (grooming, special treats) and activities (play group, a movie) for your dog. There is even a private dog park where you can play with your dog, or take a walk around the grounds. They open one-hour before the parks, and close one-hour later. Perfect for drop-off and pick-up, because I don’t envision leaving Henri there overnight.

(We’re co-dependent.)

Now, all I needed to find was a nearby dog-friendly hotel. I figured the easiest way to do that was ask. I wouldn’t recommend calling to ask because, when I called one of the Disney Reservation Agents, I got stuck talking to one of those electronic voices that ask 50 personal questions.

If you have questions concerning anything Disney, go online to, click ‘contact us,’ then, ‘chat.’ It took about 10 minutes to disney-good-neighbor-hotel-largeget a cast member to answer my questions. In my brief chat with the online cast member, I discovered Good Neighbor Hotels and Resorts. These are properties not owned by Disney but located on or near Disney property. THAT’S what I needed! There was even a website:

Once you’re on the site, click the link ‘Explore Hotels Now.’  It will take you to a page that allows you to select your hotel location, category, and features preferences. For location, you want Lake Buena Vista. (That’s where Disney World is located. Kissimmee and I-Drive would likely provide less expensive options, but they are, in my opinion, too far away.)

The only other feature I selected was ‘Pet Friendly.’ I found three choices: Clarion Inn, Holiday Inn, and the Sheraton.

Clarion has what they call VIP service (Very Important Pet), but it doesn’t offer any extra amenities like some hotels do. It’s just a fancy way of saying they allow pets. They accept dogs under 50 lbs., and require a $50 non-refundable deposit, along with an extra $15/day. Dogs must be crated if left in the room unattended. That’s a NO for us. Henri doesn’t crate.

The Sheraton allows dogs 80 lbs. or less, which is awesome for the folks traveling with big dogs. If your dog is over 50 lbs., it can be difficult to find a place. They require no deposit or extra room fee; however, they do not allow your dog to be left unattended. That could be a little inconvenient, even for someone who rarely leaves her dog.

dogs welcomeThe Holiday Inn seems the best choice for us. We meet their weight limit, 65 lbs. or less, and there were no other stated rules about crates or attendance. They charge a $50/ 5 days fee with a $10/ day after that. Not too bad.

All three of the hotels have shuttle transportation to and from the parks. But none of the shuttles allow dogs. I needed to get Henri to and from daycare, but I didn’t want to drive. It didn’t make any sense to drive him to daycare, then drive back to the hotel and take a shuttle to the park. I also didn’t want to drive to the park, walk, lose my car, walk some more, and then hope to eventually find my car in that ginormous parking lot.

Lucky for me, one of the hotels I called couldn’t answer my question concerning dogs on the shuttles and referred me directly to the company that operates them. To confirm: no dogs on the shuttles. Solution? Fleetwood Transportation will arrange to have a taxi pick up you and your dog. They will take you wherever you want to go. Personal service. Even better.DickeyStephens

So, if you are headed to Orlando for a Disney vacation and you want to take the family dog, you can do it! Book your room at one of the previously mentioned hotels; make reservations for your dog at Best Friends Pet Care; then call Fleetwood Transportation to schedule your ride. Easy as 1, 2, 3!

Now, don’t you think Henri and I should get to ride in the Grand Marshal car for the three o’clock parade?

Follow Denise’s adventures on her blog,, as she travels the world with her beloved Henri. 


Pet Parenting: My dog is itching like crazy

petparent6-no-sponsorDear Denise,

My dog is itching like crazy, but he doesn’t have fleas and I’m not seeing any obvious problems on his skin. All that scratching is making him — and us! — a little crazy. Any idea what could be wrong?

Dear Mama:

I generally don’t like to answer questions that appear to be about health, as I am not a vet, and your personal vet is an excellent resource for addressing the health of your animal. However, it seems I get this question pretty frequently, especially in the winter.

itchy dogYour problem could stem from a variety of things. It could be allergies (food, environment, fleas- even one bite is enough to set off a reaction in an allergic dog), dry skin, or maybe you didn’t rinse all the shampoo out of the coat last time your dog had a bath.

If it’s allergies, you’ll probably need your vet to help you solve that one. If it’s a bad rinse, then a more thorough rinsing followed by a second rinse with vinegar and water may help remove any soap residue.

If it’s dry skin, there are a number of things you can try. A coat conditioner, either after a bath or between, some sort of coat enhancing supplement available at pet stores or through your vet, or you can try adding a little bit of oil (olive, sunflower, safflower, coconut) to your pet’s food each day to up the intake of essential fatty acids.

My dog, Henri, gets a little bit of coconut oil most days just because I love him. You could also try a raw or poached egg twice a week, as eggs are a great source of amino acids, which are also good for the skin. If you go the oil or egg route, you should see some relief in a few weeks. If you don’t, you probably need to investigate allergies as a likely culprit and make an appointment with you vet.

Happy Holidays!

Denise HolmesDenise Holmes loves animals and considers it her life’s work to help pets and their people live together in harmony. She trains pets through her business, Ain’t Misbehavin’ Pet Behavior Counseling. Denise also developed a product just for brand-new moms that’s available at some retail outlets around NWA. It’s a CD called My New Best Friend and features actual newborn baby sounds and is designed to help introduce the family pet to a new baby.

Pet Parenting: Finding a great dog for your kids at the local animal shelter


It’s time for another installment of Pet Parenting! Local pet behavior counselor, Denise Holmes, who owns a local private counseling business Ain’t Misbehavin’, answers your most perturbing pet problems here.

The latest question:

Q: “We’ve decided to adopt a dog from the animal shelter. What’s the best way to introduce my 3-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son to our new family pet?”

A: I’d encourage you to involve your children in the adoption process. First, visit the shelter alone (kids tend to want every dog they see). Be sure to ask which animals are child friendly and only consider those.

weenie-tootsiedscn2762Select two or three dogs that you like, visit with them privately (out of their kennels). Check for things such as pain tolerance (pull the tail, poke his nose — gently, please), food/toy aggression, and restraint tolerance (give him a hug). Once the candidates get past these, it’s time to introduce the kids.

Let the kids meet each of the dogs you think might be appropriate and see who warms up to them. Hopefully, one of them will stand out and that’s YOUR dog.

Once home, be sure your pet has a secure place of his own and explain to the kids that this is “Rover’s Room” and they have to respect his space. I’d also involve the kids in his training and feeding so that the dog learns to respect them as part of the pack, and I’d start training as soon as possible.

Find a trainer who will work with you AND your children. Even the youngest is old enough to give simple commands such as sit, or play a game like fetch. These are important bonding exercises that will help everyone understand how to get along with one another.

Denise HolmesDenise Holmes loves animals and considers it her life’s work to help pets and their people live together in harmony. She trains pets through her business, Ain’t Misbehavin’ Pet Behavior Counseling. Denise also developed a product just for brand-new moms that’s available at some retail outlets around NWA. It’s a CD called My New Best Friend and features actual newborn baby sounds and is designed to help introduce the family pet to a new baby.

*Special thanks to Fayetteville mom, Carolyn, for the picture of her adorable dachshunds, Weenie and Tootsie.