A New Breed of Volunteer
Pets have a longstanding history of providing faithful companionship and unconditional love for the humans in their lives. And, for hospice patients without four-legged family members, there is still an opportunity to experience meaningful interaction with therapy dogs through the Partners In Care HosPet program. Over a dozen volunteers serve in this program, each with one or more trained therapy dogs. They visit patients at Hospice House, in their homes, or at assisted living and memory care facilities.
“As HosPet volunteers, my pet partner Piper and I have witnessed firsthand the therapeutic benefits patients and their families receive,” says Sheila Mawdsley. “We watch people experience reduced anxiety and stress, relax in the comfort of touch, and have an awakening of fond memories of their own pets. People thrive on connection and touch, and petting dogs can provide that opportunity.”
“One patient we visit just loves Piper,” adds Mawdsley. “He lights up and smiles when he talks to her. He is sitting up in a chair almost every time we visit, and Piper goes right over and puts her head on his lap while he strokes her soft hair. It’s really sweet to watch their interaction.”
Bonnie Smith volunteers with her HosPet partner Yogi, a red, tea-cup size toy poodle weighing in at exactly three pounds.
“Yogi can connect with people and turn their attention to something besides their internal struggle or discomfort,” says Smith. “I feel this is the greatest gift we can offer as volunteers. Their journey is a difficult and important time for them and their families, so anything we can do to bring comfort and joy feels valuable.”
“While visiting a hospice patient in a memory care facility, I sensed that it might not be a good time to visit as our patient seemed agitated, frightened, and confused,” explains Smith. “But when she saw Yogi, she quickly became very quiet, looked at Yogi and said, ‘oh, how sweet you are’ and put out her hands to beckon him to come to her. I placed Yogi on her lap and she hugged him as she would a little stuffed animal. He gave her gentle kisses and wagged his tail. It made all the difference in the patient’s mental and emotional state.”
John Buono and his Golden Retriever Shayla are also HosPet volunteers for Partners In Care. Shayla is well known for her ability to open automated handicap doors by pressing the push pad with her nose. And she also smiles and almost always rubs up against a patient’s leg when greeting them. According to Buono, Shayla has communicated with patients even though there were no words spoken—only eye contact.
“Shayla and I have been together for many years,” says Buono, “It still amazes me how her touch is often better than one from a human. I could not take her place and still have the same kind of relationship with the patient.”
“Walking through a nursing home, he can work a room of folks, retrieving and dropping a toy in each person’s lap sequentially and get everyone on board with his game,” says MacCollin.
“We have visited many patients who are nearing death,” explains MacCollin. “Often the family has arrived for those last days and may be struggling to get through the minutes and hours before the end. We bring a welcome diversion for them, a friendly presence that is untouched by grief but still loving and present.”
The HosPet program at Partners In Care is coordinated by Jason Medina. He knows how special this program is to patients and families.
“Our thirteen HosPet teams remind us that undivided attention and a generous presence are all that’s needed to brighten someone’s day,” explains Medina.
What does it take to become a HosPet volunteer? First, the temperament of the pet is of vital importance. The dog needs to be non-aggressive, friendly, willing to interact positively in unfamiliar situations, and easy to please. Second, the dog needs to be trained, tested, and registered by one of several nationally recognized animal therapy organizations. And third, the dog must be clean and well-groomed prior to a visit. Partners In Care trains all volunteers prior to patient care service, including HosPet volunteers.