Debbie LaChusa

Pet Therapy Magic: Hospice and Faith

My certified therapy dog Faith

I was inspired to write this piece after visiting Hospice patients with my certified therapy dog Faith. I don’t know if it qualifies as memoir, but it’s writing about my life and that’s why it’s here.

She bounded in the front door with the exuberance of an excited toddler. 

It’s this particular trait that always gives me pause when deciding which dog to take on a pet therapy visit. Hope, my 10-year-old Golden Retriever, is calm, reliable, and always easy to handle. The only worry I ever have with her is whether or not an iPhone will ding, announcing the arrival of a text message. Hope hates that sound. I don’t know why. It started a few years into her pet therapy career. 

Our trainer at the time figured Hope must have heard the ding at the exact moment something unpleasant or scary happened. That fear now forever associated in her mind with ding! I’ve tried counter-conditioning with all sorts of treats, nothing has helped her overcome it. So we both tolerate it. I’ve also learned that no dog is perfect, even the most well trained—and Hope is very well trained. They all have quirks and this just happens to be hers.

Faith, on the other hand, is not afraid of anything.

She’s my full-of-energy, will-always-be-a-puppy, eight-year-old Golden Retriever, whose personality could not be more different from Hope’s. Yet in her own way, she’s a wonderful therapy dog. The biggest challenge with Faith is getting her to work. Once she’s arrived at the venue, and settled in—which usually only takes about five minutes—she calmly enjoys the attention of whoever we happen to be visiting. This morning was no different.

As we enter the Hospice facility, a staff member comes over to say hello to Faith.

Faith reciprocates with her typical wiggly enthusiasm. She smells the treats in the woman’s hand, which only serves to ramp up her excitement more. My girls always get treats, and plenty of love, from the staff. I’d prefer they get paid after completing their shift—the treats tend to distract them from doing from their job—but this is how it’s done at Hospice so we go along. It makes the staff happy and it certainly pleases my girls.

After visiting briefly with four staff members, who happily plop down on the floor and spoil Faith with attention, we move on to the real reason we’re here: to visit dying patients and their families. It’s a job I never expected to be doing, especially on the heels of dad’s death. For whatever reason I felt called to this work after dad passed away last summer. And I always follow my callings. 

Today Faith and I visited with four patients.

The first three were brief and uneventful. The last visit reminded me why we do this work. I was walking in the hallway when a staff member stopped to alert me the woman across the hall had just passed. She also thought her family might like to see Faith. 

“Do you want me to ask if they’d like to visit?” she inquired.

Thinking how much I would have loved to visit with a therapy dog immediately following dad’s death, I said, “Sure, we’ll wait here.”

Because many Hospice patients are unconscious and not aware we’re there, some of our most rewarding visits are with family members. This facility is a last stop for most people, with the exception of a few patients who check in for a week of respite. The rest have come here to die. Other than one patient we visited two weeks in a row, we’ve yet to visit anyone more than once.

Every week the rooms are inhabited by new patients nearing the end of their lives.

You might think this would make it a difficult place to be. On the contrary, I think because we don’t get the chance to really know anyone, it’s easier to focus on the fact we’re just there to provide a little bit of joy toward the end of their journey.

The staff member emerges from the patient’s room and invites us in, saying the family would love to visit with Faith. As we enter the room, I notice four women surrounding the woman lying in bed. They all smile the moment Faith walks in. Her child-like exuberance fully in check, Faith walks politely up to a middle-aged woman sitting in a big brown chair at the foot of the bed. 

The mood in the room is light. No one is crying.

It reminds me of being in dad’s room with my family after he died. After the initial shock and sorrow, we spent a few hours sitting around reminiscing and laughing while waiting for the mortuary staff to arrive. That may sound insensitive but after sitting on death watch for two days, revisiting happy family memories was a welcome relief. I got the very same sense from this family.

Proudly sporting her red therapy vest, with the blue and yellow patch that reads Please Pet Me, Faith stands patiently as each woman strokes her golden fur and compliments her on how well-behaved she is. She beams that typical Golden Retriever smile as if to acknowledge the compliments and continues doing her job like a pro, the same way she has since she was two years old. 

The family talks about their own dogs, with one of the women sharing it was a dog that alerted them to the health issue that resulted in their family member being brought to Hospice. We all marvel at how intuitive and in-tune dogs are. 

Faith is enjoying all the attention but I begin getting the sense it’s time for us to leave.

I share my condolences and thank the women for letting us stop by. As we exit the room, the staff member walks up to us and says, “I’m so glad you were here. I think this was good for them. Thank you.”

I’m glad, too. Our visit couldn’t have been more perfectly timed.

Of the six visits we’ve made to this Hospice facility, three times we’ve arrived immediately following the death of a patient. In fact, on our first visit, two patients passed just moments before we arrived. I’ve been told by a colleague this isn’t common. In all her years visiting this facility she’s only experienced this a couple of times.

It’s Hospice so there’s always the chance of encountering death.

Still, I find it intriguing my girls and I have experienced so much in such a short period of time. I also find it interesting that it doesn’t bother me. Rather, it feels like validation. That after eight years of doing pet therapy in every venue imaginable except Hospice, this is exactly what we’re supposed to be doing right now.

In a way it feels like I’m honoring dad.

He had Hospice care for two months before he passed. Living across the country I didn’t get to experience it in person until the final two days of his life. I remember noticing how kind and compassionate his Hospice caregivers were. They were a gift to him, mom, and the rest of my family during a very difficult time. I suppose that’s what inspires me to do this work now. Instead of recoiling from it, I’m drawn to it, perhaps to pay it forward. If my girls can bring just a little bit of joy during a very dark time, the way dad’s caregivers did, I’m honored to help them do just that.

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