A heartwarming story about my therapy dog Faith, and her visits with Hospice patients.
I’ve been a pet therapy volunteer for eight years.
I actually have two certified therapy dogs, both golden retrievers. Hope is ten years old, Faith is eight.
Hope has always been my steady, reliable, zen therapy dog. With a perpetual smile on her face, she brings peace and calm to everyone she meets.
Faith, on the other hand, has a more exuberant energy. Her engaging personality makes people laugh. She’s the yang to Hope’s yin.
While they bring different qualities to their work as therapy dogs, they each radiate joy and light. They spread both like pixie dust on every pet therapy visit we do. Even when we’re visiting Hospice patients.
In all my years doing volunteer pet therapy, I never chose to visit Hospice patients.
That is until my father died last year. His last few months were my first experience with Hospice, and because he received such compassionate care, I was inspired to pay it forward.
My girls and I now visit a local Hospice facility every week. You might think it would be difficult or depressing. It’s exactly the opposite. Hope and Faith see to that.
Friday is our Hospice pet therapy day. I pick one of my dogs — they take turns because I can only bring one dog per visit — dress her in a bright red pet therapy vest, and buckle her into the backseat of my Subaru (yes, I drive the official golden retriever car). Together we make the twenty-minute drive to the Hospice facility.
Today it’s Faith’s turn.
As we drive down the mountain and into town, she stands excitedly in the backseat, her head peering over the headrest. Since it’s just the two of us, and she’s wearing her work vest, I like to think she knows where we’re headed.
We arrive at our destination, a twenty-four-hour care facility with nineteen beds, that houses patients in their final days, and respite care patients who check in for one week at a time. Faith bounces through the front door and into the lobby. I do my best to contain her energy to a more appropriate level.
Our first stop is the front desk. As soon as we round the corner and head behind the tall counter, the woman seated at the desk gazes down at Faith, and a big smile immediately spreads across her face. She’s the only person sitting there today, but often we’re greeted by three, four, or even five staff members. They look forward to our visits. They even have a treat drawer in one of the file cabinets. And my girls know exactly where it is.
Faith makes a beeline for the cookie cabinet and the woman is happy to oblige. She opens the drawer, grabs the goodie bag, and feeds Faith a couple of cookies. It’s hard to tell who enjoys this tradition more.
One thing I notice every time we visit is how the mood of the room, and everyone in it, lifts the moment we enter.
Today, Faith’s buoyant energy fills the space — her tail wagging so hard her entire body wiggles. It’s earned her the nickname waggybutt because she never wags just her tail. Too much happiness to be confined to one body part I suppose. Everyone loves it. It makes me smile. My little golden girl, being her silly self, and bringing lightness where there is so much sadness.
Hospice is a caring, compassionate place, but it’s not a happy one. People go there to die. Families keep vigil with loved ones, waiting for the end to arrive. Just as my family did in the days before my dad passed. I know these people’s pain. It’s still a fresh wound in my memory. What I would have given to have a therapy dog visit my family while we were on death watch with Dad. It would have made those final hours a little less dark.
We approach our first room. I knock softly on the closed door.
I’m never sure what I’ll encounter on the other side. Today, a woman’s voice welcomes us in. I open the door slowly, peek my head in and ask, “Would you like to visit with a therapy dog?”
Three family members are crowded on a small couch opposite their loved one, who lies unconscious in bed.
“Oh yes,” the older woman sitting in the center of the sofa replies, “We love dogs.”
For the next ten minutes the three take turns petting Faith and telling me about their dogs. As they stroke Faith’s golden fur, I listen to their stories. They seem to appreciate the distraction. The chance to focus on something other than death. The opportunity to spend a few minutes petting a wiggly golden retriever with a big smile and a happy attitude.
Before we go, they thank me for bringing Faith into the room.
I see the appreciation in their eyes. I feel it in their hearts. The mood of the room feels lighter when we leave. Faith has done her job.
After spending time with six patients and their families, Faith and I wrap up our visit. It was a good day. We did what we came here to do. We brought a little light to death’s door.
Next week it will be Hope’s turn.
As we drive home, it dawns on me these visits are helping me, too. Watching my girls bring joy and light to people going through the same pain I went through last year is helping me heal. I’m not sure I understand how, or why, I just know I feel a little lighter too.