A new resident in the Alzheimer’s unit, Constance has refused to come out of her room. Her hearing is compromised, she is disoriented, and has difficulty communicating. Attempts to get her down to the physical therapy room have been futile. One thing that is known about Constance is that she is an animal lover… Entered James – and the magical connection occurred! Constance smiled and waved her hands making attempts to communicate her desire to spend time with James. The physical therapists wanted to get her up and out of her room, so they told her if she went into the lounge, she could visit with James. She beamed and willingly followed them to a chair in the lounge positioned so she could cradle James’ head in her hands and pet his head. LOTS OF SMILES!!! I love doing this… wish I could spend everyday bringing James to visit with Constance.
When a dog owner calls me and says: I have an adorable, sweet, friendly dog. He’s so good with people. I know he’ll make a wonderful therapy dog. When can you evaluate him? I get a bit nervous. More times then not, these are the dogs that come galloping in through the door, six foot lead fully extended. The dog has a big smile on his face, tongue hanging out, saying – I’m here. I’m very, very friendly! Or, they’re the dogs whose owners want passionately to be involved with this type of work, but I see them literally dragging their cowering dog in behind them. In both scenarios, the owners are eager to get started. This presents a problem for me as the evaluator.
Dog #1 – our overly exuberant, jolly fellow – clearly is very happy to be in the new environment. Just what I like to see in a therapy dog. The dog is literally smiling. But, he’s quite a bit out-of-control. The owner tells me that the dog is perfect, He sits, stays, heels, downs – all on command – when we’re by ourselves with no distractions. Well, a therapy dog, for the most part, is not alone and there are plenty of distractions. In this case, since the dog clearly is happy to be in the setting, I recommend that the owner work more – lots more – on getting the basic obedience commands solid, testing the dog’s controllability in a variety of settings with distractions (go into public buildings where dogs are allowed and interact with people of all ages, test the basic commands indoors and outdoors). When he is completely controllable, he may very well be ready to be re-evaluated. Here, it’s up to the owner. He must ask himself, Am I willing to put in the time to train my dog for therapy dog visiting? (Of course, in my opinion, this is a mute point for a responsible dog owner. It’s our job, we owe this to our dogs, whether or not they become therapy dogs.) I have found that those who are committed to doing this with their dog have had a successful outcome.
Dog #2 is more difficult to turn around. If your dog is truly unhappy about being in a strange place, is shy or timid, it will take a lot of positive training and socialization to reverse this situation. The dog may have solid obedience commands – unlike dog #1 – and pass the obedience portion of the evaluation with flying colors, but be very unhappy and stressed out when interacting with strangers. It really isn’t fair to force the issue – this is not the overall package that makes a good therapy dog. A good therapy dog is happy while doing his job. It’s hard for me, but in cases like this, I recommend to folks that they not pursue therapy dog visiting. This recommendation in no way means that their dog is not wonderful – all dogs are wonderful – but not all dogs make good therapy dogs.
Hospice care provides support and comfort to patients having a six-month life expectancy. Volunteers interested in working with patients on hospice care go through an extensive training period to prepare for this type of work. The work can be emotionally draining, but extremely rewarding. You become a part of the circle of support for the person, and for the family of the individual, as well.
In training, one is taught that silence is often what is needed from a hospice volunteer… regular, everyday subject matter is unimportant. Being silent can be hard for humans, we feel compelled to fill the silence with words. Listening, too, is equally important. Whether it be the patient that wants you to sit silently and listen to everything he wants to say, or the family member that needs someone to talk to. We need to train ourselves, as human beings normally talkative and avoiding silence, to sit silently and listen – if that is what the situation calls for.
This is where therapy dogs make great hospice volunteers. They are naturals when it comes to providing a quiet, listening ear. They provide what is greatly needed at this stage – soft touch, and a feeling of warmth and caring. A therapy dog will sit in a chair next to the patient, lie down at his feet, or lie alongside him in bed and listen quietly for a very long time.
One of our Bright Spot volunteers reports that patients will frequently pet her dog Suzie and launch into conversation about the dogs in their lives, they then continue to talk about many other things, all the while petting the dog. Family members or the attending care provider have often told her that prior to her visit with Suzie, the patient had been sad, reluctant to talk, had a variety of discomforts, but after the dog’s visit, the patient was more positive, talking more and taking more interest in life and activities. Another volunteer visiting hospice patients with her toy poodle, Buddy tells me that she tucks tiny Buddy right in bed with the patient. He gives them kisses and they make a fuss over him. A volunteer that visits a hospice patient in her home with her two small Portuguese Podengos tells me that the patient adores the dogs and giggles the entire time. One dog sits up on the patient’s lap while the other sits on the floor next to her and she gives him a brushing. Her children are very happy that their mom gets a regular visit from both two-legged and four-legged friends. This volunteer believes that their visits have had a positive impact on the health and wellbeing of the patient.
The Director of a local Hospice Life Care Program has told me that she loves to have therapy dogs visit the facility. She has witnessed dramatic changes in Alzheimer’s and Dementia patients. Typically these patients show little eye contact, movement, and utter very little speech, but when a therapy dog visits, they focus on the dog, pet him, smile, and often try to speak. The dog’s presence touches something in them that may trigger a memory – something. Something is triggered that no human is able to elicit. Patients that don’t want a human volunteer visitor will accept the dog visitor, let the dog jump up on the bed, pet and talk to the dog – then turn and talk to the dog owner.
Clearly, therapy dogs provide socialization, diversion from pain, and pure enjoyment. As volunteers, one finds comfort in knowing that our visits with our therapy dogs have helped the patient die peacefully and comfortably – the goal of the Hospice Program.
When your dog is a visiting therapy dog, he or she needs to be clean and well-groomed. It’s a good habit to get into with any dog. We had an Irish Setter named Breezy – a terrific dog; not a therapy dog, but our fabulous family dog. She had a regular routine of grooming and bathing. She just loved to be clean (and adored the one-on-one attention she got). Since James visits hospice patients, he gets a quick bath every week. Today he got his trim, as well. Just part of his routine, he’s fine with it. Groom your dog on a regular basis – including clipping his nails, and he’ll simply get used to it and expect it.
James and I had a great visit today with the hospice patient we’ve been visiting weekly for the past five months. Usually she’s sitting in her wheelchair – and, due to her condition, she often has a hard time reaching James to pet him (we of course work very hard, James and I, to make it possible for her to touch his soft silky fur). Today, we found her lying in bed. She was quick to tell us that she wasn’t sick, they just wanted her to lie in bed to change her position. As always, she was delighted to see us – and was even more delighted when I had James get up on her bed, lie down along side of her and put his head on her chest. A broad smile appeared on her face. She was able to easily stroke his head and ears and talk to him face-to-face. Such a special visit!
I’ve found through the years that some dogs are just naturals. Really, they were born to be therapy dogs. Others evolve into great therapy dogs. Some dogs – as wonderful as they are at home, are just not cut out to be therapy dogs. I’ve experienced all three – and in between – with my own dogs.
Starting your puppy off right gives you a good shot at working toward therapy dog certification. Socialization is key to having a puppy evolve into a dog that can go anywhere and meet and greet anyone. Beginning early is great: take rides in the car, walk with a friend who has a dog, go to a park – or other place where you’re sure to meet up with lots of people. Try to meet up with people of all ages… your dog must be socialized with children if you happen to want to do therapy dog visiting with that age group. Look for people in wheelchairs, walkers, and canes – go up and tell them that you are training your dog to be a therapy dog and ask them to pet your dog. The more you do this, the better off your dog will be – whether you pursue therapy dog work or just want a well-adjusted canine family member. I can’t stress this enough – and it’s the thing I bring up first at the start of every class I teach – What did you do this week to socialize your dog?
With everyone’s hectic schedules, I know it’s easier said then done, but it’s the most important thing you can do for your dog – and it helps to build a strong bond between you and your pal. It should be fun – not work – it’s part of having a dog. It should be part of your everyday living. If you are one of those lucky people who can bring your dog to work with you, this is a golden opportunity not to be missed. Definitely take advantage of this and have your dog interact with lots of people. If you work primarily out of a home office, as I do, the challenge is to get out… your dog isn’t going to get enough interaction from the mailman or the neighbor across the fence. Whatever your circumstances happen to be, it’s critical to your dog’s development that you work very hard on this first step.