Helping hands...and paws

Duke and Regis Orkwis of Avalon team up to provide a special type of healing for patients in area hospitals and nursing homes. A trained therapy dog, Duke creates a whole new image of the Rottweiler breed by delivering gentle affection to patients and their families. Photo by Tom Steiner for The Citizen

Dog catches Frisbee in mid-air.


Dog fetches master’s paper and slippers.


Dog brings a few moments of happiness to seriously ill hospital patients.

More valuable than some of the best medicines.

But fo

r Duke, a 95-lb. Rottweiler and best pal of Regis Orkwis of Avalon, it’s all in a day’s work of proving that his species really is man’s best friend.

Orkwis, who retired after 20 years at J & L Steel Corporation, and 25 years at the School for Blind Children in Oakland, explained how Duke’s and his involvement in the dog therapy program came about.

“I was reading the UPMC Quarterly and came across an article about dogs helping palliative care patients -- people who have had heart transplants, cancer surgery, some of them in fairly bad shape. The article was about the dogs they have in the program, the ones who visit some of those patients. I called and signed up to volunteer one day a week at Presbyterian and Montefiore hospitals.”

Orkwis said that Duke has a great personality.

“We observed a class at Animal Friends to see what the dogs have to be able do. He has to understand that he can’t touch food and that he cannot get excited. He must be able to stay with a stranger for 5 or 10 minutes and he has to know basic commands like ‘come,’ ‘stay.’ The Humane Society had an opening for a test and he passed it with flying colors.”

Duke’s report card read, “Sweet and obedient dog.”

Duke came to Regis and his wife Barb’s home from the Cranberry Township/Evans City area. “He was about seven months old when I adopted him. The people who had him as a puppy did a very good job training him,” Regis said.

Being a long-haired Rottweiler makes Duke rare, but not always the type of dog in demand by breeders who prefer the standard shorthairs. However, with his gentle disposition, he is the perfect contradiction to some people’s misconception that Rottweilers can be temperamental.

“I knock on a patient’s hospital room door, and when we come in, worry just melts away for a few minutes. He often is apprehensive about going into some patients’ rooms. A dog can smell medicines He can pick up on all sorts of things that humans may not notice.”

Orkwis said that patients love to pet Duke and that some take a short walk with him. And sometimes -- if they want -- he’ll hop up on the patient’s bed for a few minutes.

“I take him into intensive care units and it’s not just the patients who respond. The nurses love him and so do stressed families and friends in the waiting rooms.”

Now in its third year, the program currently has six therapy dogs and human companions, all of them official UPMC volunteers.  All dogs are certified therapy dogs by Therapy Dogs International. 

UPMC’s Dr. Susan Hunt explains that the six dogs in the program “…can be comforting and non-judgmental. They offer a time-out from the hospital day for patients who request visits from therapy dogs. They offer companionship, and remind patients of their own companion animals at home.”

Duke and Regis do not limit their visits just to hospitals. They’ve visited Regis’s grandson’s day care center as well as senior care facilities such as New Hope in Avalon and Little Sisters of the Poor on the North Side.

The visits last just a few hours each, but they are very strenuous for Duke.

“When we get home, he just flops down and takes a long rest.”

But there are rewards.

“We go to the park almost every day. He loves to run the trails.”

And when Duke turned 5 on June 1, Regis treated him to ice cream with a biscuit on top and they had a little party with his best friend, a huskie from down the street.

“He’s such a good boy. I don’t know what I did to deserve him,” Regis says, Duke looking up at him to show that he understands the affection and praise being spoken of him.

Regis picks up a large packet of letters and thank you notes and pulls one written by a UPMC employee who wrote it after Duke and Regis visited her dying friend. “…it meant so much to him. I think it might have been the last time he smiled…Thank you for sharing Duke’s love with so many others.”

Regis runs his hands across Duke’s long-haired fluffy coat. “Yes, I save all of his fan mail. He deserves it.”

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