Old dogs teach new tricks at this hospice

Pet therapy enhances patient care

Dogs are a natural addition to a kid's camp, especially a grief camp offered by a hospice. Not only are therapy dogs part of the camp held each year by the Hospice of South Georgia in Valdosta, GA, but policies and procedures related to therapy animals were put in place so adults could enjoy pet visits when the hospice designed its inpatient unit, which opened in 2007.

"Therapy dogs were part of the inpatient program from the beginning," explains Amanda Patterson, executive director of the hospice. "Stroking a dog's fur or just having a dog lay its head on a lap, calms and soothes patients," she says. The policies do allow a patient's personal pet to visit if a friend or family member stays with the pet, but the majority of pet visits in the inpatient unit are made by therapy dogs, she says.

"It is important that we recognize the relationship between patients and pets, but personal pets and therapy pets must be clean, controlled by a handler, and the handler must sign a waiver form signifying that he or she assumes responsibility for the pet," says Patterson. "Patients must also give their permission for a pet to visit," she adds. A personal pet may only visit its owner, while therapy animals may visit any patient who wants a visit, she says.

"We have a dog that visits the hospice house every other Sunday," says Della Perkins, the hospice volunteer coordinator who oversees the therapy animal program. The dog and her handler go from room to room to visit patients who have agreed to a visit. Another dog is at the hospice house every Wednesday to greet family members as they visit, she says. "Family members are under a lot of stress and having a dog greet them puts them at ease," she explains.

The program consists of five volunteer handlers and their dogs but there are specific requirements for a dog and handler to participate in the program, explains Perkins. "The dogs must go through a training program and be certified by Therapy Dogs Inc.," she says. "Therapy Dogs Inc. has excellent guidelines that describe the handler's responsibilities and requirements for the dog," she says. For example, guidelines require the dog to be clean, up-to-date on all vaccinations, and to have their nails clipped, she says. Their certification ensures that the handler and dog have passed tests and are ready to handle visits in the hospice, she adds.

The handlers and dogs have their own volunteer personnel files that contain proof of training, testing, and certification, points out Patterson. "We also keep a copy of the dog's vaccination record," she adds. The "human" volunteer's record also includes proof that he or she has undergone the hospice's required orientation and volunteer training, she says.

At the hospice's annual grief camp, Camp Lean on Me, dogs get to spend 3 days with children who have recently lost a family member, says Perkins. "The kids throw balls for the dogs to chase, pet the dogs, and bond with them," she says. "We occasionally have a child tell us that he or she is afraid of dogs so we let the handlers know about the child's fear and they watch to make sure the child feels safe," she says. Often, the child's fear of the dogs at the camp is gone at some point during the weekend, she adds.

Although the effect of a dog's visit can easily be seen on most patients' faces, one patient experience stands out in Perkins' memory. When a dog went to visit a woman who was not responsive to conversation from family or staff, the staff member placed the woman's hand on the dog's head, she says. "She became very calm and left her hand on the dog's head," she says. Simple contact with the dog was beneficial for this patient."

Sources/Resources

For more information about pet visits in a hospice, contact:

Della Perkins, Volunteer Coordinator, Hospice of South Georgia, Valdosta, GA. Telephone: (229) 671-8375; e-mail: della.perkins@sgmc.org.

Therapy Dogs Inc., P.O. Box 20227, Cheyenne WY 82003. Telephone: (877) 843-7364 or (307) 432-0272; fax: (307) 638-2079; e-mail: therapydogsinc@qwestoffice.net; web site: www.therapydogs.com. The web site includes guidelines for pets and handlers that can be incorporated into hospice policies and procedures.