Tami’s Blog: The Two Staff Members We Never Knew We Needed

Since we first started serving families in 1981, we’ve done everything we can to provide the comforts of home—showers, hot meals, a place to sleep.

Eventually, we realized there was still one big thing people were missing: their pets. As many of us know, pets are a part of the family. 

They comfort you when you’re sad. Cheer you up when you need a distraction. There’s just nothing quite like burying your face in their fur to make you feel better.

But with 80 families on our campus and 11 in our Ronald McDonald Family Rooms at any given time, it wasn’t feasible to allow families to bring their pets with them. Then, with a little help from our friends, we came up with a solution. 

We had a great relationship with Wayside Waifs, a local animal shelter, who came to us in 2011 to let us know about a dog they thought might make a great fit for us. A fluffy little cairn-terrier mix named Mr. Bean. 

He was a smart dog who was getting himself into a lot of trouble—like escaping backyards—and needed a job. We even wrote a book about it! Unfortunately, it’s sold out, but here’s an excerpt: 

“Mr. Bean is a fluffy-white dog – the fluffiest you will meet! He’s itty and bitty and scrappy and cute and he’ll do anything for a treat.” 

We were thrilled to hire Mr. Bean as our Director of Love and Compassion, and the families, staff and volunteers all loved him. We knew that a house dog was just what we needed. But we didn’t know yet was that it was such a BIG job, especially for a little dog. After a few years, Mr. Bean grew overwhelmed and a little cranky at the demands of the job. We realized that he was ready to retire. He’d worked hard for us and needed a quiet place to nap and a yard to dig holes in. He’s now living out his days with muddy paws and lots of extra treats in a former staff member’s home. (I like to say that Mr. Bean is doing retirement the right way: dirty, lazy and happy!)

We knew that we wanted another dog—the benefits were obvious—but this time, we decided to be a little more intentional. We wanted to find a trained therapy dog who could handle such a big, important job. We’d learned that if you’re a house dog at Ronald McDonald House, you will have a lot of duties: Grown-ups will want to sit by your side and pet you while they let their emotions out. Kids will put bows in your fur and want to wrassle—and I mean wrassle!—with you. You need to be playful, and you need to be chill. And, you have to know when each vibe is needed.

To help find the perfect pet for us, we partnered with CARES, Inc., an amazing organization that trains therapy dogs. They have a pretty unique system: first, they put their puppies through “elementary school,” where they learn basic behavior (don’t jump, don’t pee in the house, etc.). Then they move on to “middle school,” where they do skills-based training like how to retrieve. Finally, they go on to “high school,” where the staff work closely with each dog to figure out their natural temperament and where those dogs are going to be the best fit.  

We were particular in the type of personality we needed; we asked them to find us a dog who could be around a lot of people and wasn’t picky about who they’re saying hi to—which is different than if you needed a super-loyal, 1: 1 dog. We needed a dog who could be in a crowd without getting overwhelmed, but who could also be chill and astute enough to know if someone didn’t want to engage. And they delivered!

In 2020, they brought us Benson, a Bernedoodle, and our first officially trained therapy dog. He’s fluffy and big, and he’s just magic. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen turn into ooey-gooey melted butter when he’s around. I like to joke that Benson has ESP—he can just tell if a kid wants to play or snuggle. And if someone isn’t into dogs, he knows who to leave alone, too. 

I’ll never forget, not long after Benson joined us, I saw a mom sitting outside in our Serenity Garden with him, just looking into Benson’s eyes as he stared back soulfully for a few quiet moments. It seemed like just what she needed—a quiet connection while she was dealing with her child’s serious illness. 

We soon realized that there simply wasn’t enough of Benson to go around. By the fall of 2023, we knew it was too big of a job for even a trained dog like him. We thought, “Time to make another important hire.” 

So we went back to CARES, Inc. and they delivered—again! They introduced us to Jay, a yellow lab, who joined us in January of this year. We love Jay. Right now, he’s bringing all his puppy energy, but isn’t that most of us when we start a new job? He hasn’t even completed his first 90 days! He’s learning so quickly and has been a great fit for us.

We are thrilled to have not one, but two dogs who are perfect for us, for different reasons. Benson is a great fit for our hospital-based programs, like the Family Room in Overland Park Regional and the soon-to-be new Ronald McDonald House inside of Children’s Mercy. He’s six now, and very calm, which is what families need in the often stressful environment of the hospital.

Jay is just 20 months old and is always ready to romp. He’s a great fit for us on our main campus and doesn’t know a stranger. He’ll go up to anyone and cuddle with whoever will have him. 

People always want to know, do they live in the Houses? They do not; they each have a staff person who acts as their handler—someone who takes them home at night, where they get their time off. They need breaks just like the rest of us. When they take their official working vests off, they know it’s time to act like a dog. 

But when those vests go on? They’re ready to work. So much so that we gave them each an official title: Benson is our Director of Goodness (DOG) and Jay is our Cuddle Coordinator. They’re both full-time employees and work 40 hours a week—and when needed, they even come in off-hours for families who want to schedule time for a personal visit. They earn their treats!

So far, there’s been no downside to having a therapy dog and in fact, I would advise every company out there to consider having one around. We’ve found that our staff needs them just as much as our families do. 

It’s been a game-changer, having them around for our employees. We’ll have a meeting, and Benson will go around and give everyone love. A staff person recently had a really difficult day, and when I asked how we could help, she just asked for a little time with Jay! We even now list the dogs in our benefits package for new employees because we know that they’re part of what makes us such a great place to work. 

The dogs have also been a financial investment—they need to be groomed to keep their shedding down and keep them clean. Regular vet visits and pet food add up, too. As any pet owner knows, it’s no small expense. 

I’m a dog lover myself, with a 115-pound, nine-year-old lab at home named Dasher. I always say, he’s not very book-smart but has a high EQ; he knows when someone is upset and will go put his head in their lap. Dasher is a big lovable goof, and I suspect my boys in college come home to visit Dash as much as to visit their parents! He’s always there for my family when we need a little extra love. 

Just like our Director of Goodness and Cuddle Coordinator are always there for the families and sick children we serve at Ronald McDonald House. 

One of our kiddos, fourteen-year-old Colton Smith, had a heart transplant at the beginning of December and spent more than three months recovering at the Ronald McDonald Houses. He missed his dog at home, so he was always looking for Benson or Jay. His mom was thankful too and told us, “To have the dogs for him to cuddle with or a throw a ball to has been a godsend!” 

We couldn’t be luckier to have two of the most valuable four-legged employees on earth.