April 16, 2001
Offering aid and comfort
by Deborah Stone
Kody, Boomer, Rusty, Taylor, Scooter, Ringo and Elli Jay are all members of an elite group. Specially trained and certified, they are the cream of the crop and masters at their craft. This is a group of highly experienced canines that possess the necessary credentials to work in the field of animal-assisted therapy.
On a weekly basis, they visit patients with life threatening illnesses registered through Evergreen Hospice Service. Their handlers/owners accompany them on these visits to Evergreen's Hospice facility in Kirkland and to various nursing homes in the community, as well as to patients' private homes. They are a part of a vital alternative therapy program, which began three years ago at the Hospice.
"We had a volunteer who had a dog that she wanted to use in the hospice setting and she urged us to develop a program using animals to work with patients in a therapeutic way," explains David Bucher, Evergreen Hospice Supervisor. "We now have ten volunteers with their dogs who visit our patients at the various sites."
The dogs and their handlers are well trained and have to be evaluated and pass tests to earn Delta Society Pet Partner registration (an organization based in Renton which sets up standards to use in animal assisted therapy programs). In addition, the volunteers go through special training at Evergreen Hospice to learn about working with patients who have life threatening illnesses. Currently, approximately a dozen patients have regularly scheduled animal-assisted therapy visits lasting from five minutes to a half-hour per week.
"The patient or his/her alternative decision maker must agree to the service," says Bucher. "We don't force this on anyone. It's completely optional and it is one of the many services we offer our patients to help relieve pain and improve the quality of their lives and their deaths."
The dogs, all adult, are a wide mix of breeds; however, the most popular breed used for this type of therapy is the golden retriever. Other breeds in use at Evergreen Hospice include a chocolate lab, a corgi, a greyhound and a Jack Russell terrier.
"These dogs are wonderful," comments Bucher. "They are patient and loving animals that seem to truly enjoy doing this type of work." The purpose of this therapy is to provide opportunities for the patients to make contact with animals. He said this contact can bring a sense of peace to the patient and help reduce anxiety. It can also provide a necessary distraction and an additional focus that's positive in nature.
"The physical contact of a soft, furry animal can be so comforting to people," adds Bucher. "We find that this type of therapy works particularly well with patients who have dementia. The contact for them is very valuable."
Patients dictate the sessions according to what's comfortable for them. The volunteers are trained to watch for physical cues from the patients, especially in cases where the patients can't speak. They want to make sure that the sessions do not stress or overly tire the patients. The idea is to allow the interaction to take place naturally, positioning the dog where the patient is comfortable.
Sometimes the dog is in a standing position or seated next to the patient's chair or wheelchair. Other times, depending on the dog's size, the animal is placed into the patient's lap and even into the bed with the patient.
"Just having the dog present can make such a big difference," explains Bucher. "People smile and respond, either physically or verbally. We have heard people speak when they haven't spoken in a long while or express themselves in ways that they haven't used in months. Family members benefit, too, from this service, as it can serve as a type of bridge. They take great comfort in knowing their loved ones have this opportunity."
Evergreen Hospice is in its tenth year and currently serves 115 patients per day. All have life threatening illnesses ranging from cancer to heart, lung and neurological diseases. Approximately 95 percent of the patients are seen out in the community and only eight are in residence at Evergreen Hospice's facility. The Animal-Assisted Therapy program is supported by donations from the community and through funding from the Evergreen Hospice Volunteer Program. Funds go towards the continued maintenance of the program, training costs of the volunteers, including on-going enrichment programs, and uniforms for the dogs.
Each animal has a kerchief made of navy blue nylon pack cloth that identifies him or her as members of Evergreen Healthcare's Animal-Assisted Therapy program. Bucher hopes to add other animals to the program, especially cats. He says, "Cats would be a wonderful addition. I have people tell me that they have these great cats that just want to sit in someone's lap and be petted all day. I encourage them to take the necessary steps to be registered, but somehow no one has followed through yet. I hope that we can attract some cat owners to become involved in the future, as I know that cats would be a welcome addition to the program."
For more information about Evergreen Hospice and its therapy program, call (425) 899-1040.