As the leading therapy dog organizations in the United States, the Alliance of Therapy Dogs is are often asked about the benefits of therapy dogs for hospice patients. The goal of a hospice is to provide emotional support, comfort, and care for patients during the final stage of life. The patient’s quality of life is maintained for as long as the patient can receive it. Making a patient comfortable and reducing the stress of the situation as they are in the final stages of life is the gift that therapy dogs bring.
To help maintain the quality of life of a patient, hospice facilities strive to maintain a level of normalcy. The role of a therapy dog in a hospice setting gives patients and their families emotional and physical support in a way that a hospice staff cannot. The presence of a therapy dog brings much-needed joy and happiness for both the patient and their loved ones.
While working with hospice programs, therapy dogs learn to be able to sense the process an individual goes through with death. Signs may include a change in breathing, restlessness or possible disorientation. In addition to the patient, dogs and handlers often have the ability to comfort family members including children. There are times when the family may request that the therapy dog lay by the end of the bed during the patient’s final moments of life. This might be because the patient loved dogs and the sight of the dog brings a sense of normalcy for not only the patient but the family as well.
In this article, we will discuss the ways in which therapy dogs interact with hospice patients, the physical, social and emotional benefits of the interaction.
How Do Therapy Dogs Interact with Hospice Patients During Visits?
Visits between patients and therapy dogs promote activity, conversation, and emotional connection. Often, simply the presence of the therapy dog is all that is required to promote the positive effects and patients, caregivers, and family can interact with the therapy dog as they would with their own pets, such as
- tossing a ball or toy for the therapy dog to fetch
- quietly enjoying the presence of the therapy dog
- talking to, petting, hugging, holding, or cuddling with the therapy dog
- enjoying playful animal tricks and commands such as sitting, rolling over, or shaking hands
What are the Physical Benefits of Hospice Therapy Dogs?
The close companionship of animals provides a relaxing and understanding presence to those on the near death. Enjoying the presence and interacting with animals yields a host of physical benefits for patients, including:
- reduces physical pain
- reduces blood pressure
- promotes an improved heart rate and total cardiovascular health
- increased levels of overall comfort
So, it was no surprise when the residents a New South Wales retirement/hospice facility decided that they wanted to adopt a therapy dog.
Hospice therapy dog programs also have a significant impact on the overall range of motion and bodily strength of patients. Active movement can often be neglected, especially in older patients; however, therapy dog visits promote motion and activity as hospice patients play, cuddle, pet, and interact with their therapy dog.
Georgia the greyhound was adopted from Greyhounds as Pets, a not-for-profit initiative coordinated by Greyhound Racing NSW that strives to find calm, loving homes for animals that may have previously been used in dog races.
After a little time settling in, Georgia became a permanent fixture in residents’ lives. She now spends her mornings visiting the staff and residents, and the love and attention that the residents receive during her rounds is just as important to Georgia as it is to them.
“She means everything to me,” one resident says. “I fell in love with her the first time I laid eyes on her,” another chimes in.
What are the Social and Emotional Benefits of Hospice Therapy Dogs?
Therapy dogs have a profound, measured impact on the social and emotional well-being of patients. The unconditional love therapy dogs bring gives patients a sense of feeling needed and important.
The soothing presence and unconditional affection of therapy dog provides:
- reduced feelings of loneliness
- reduced feelings of depression
- lower levels of anxiety
- improved overall outlook on life and circumstances
These effects are particularly noticeable in patients with dementia. According to a 2013 study, dementia patients, over a 10-week period of pet therapy, experienced a slowing in the progression of dementia-related symptoms, including agitation, aggression, and depression. The presence of therapy dogs also elicited a higher response rate from patients, signaling that pet therapy may also help slow the deteriorating verbal skills brought about by the disease.
What are Common Requirements for Hospice Therapy Dogs and Their Handlers?
Common requirements for therapy dogs include:
- Being effectively house trained
- Having no history of aggressive behavior and welcome human interaction
- Displaying obedience to commands such as “sit,” “stay”, and “come.”
- Having all appropriate and up-to-date vaccinations
- Being of a certain age depending on species
Handlers must also demonstrate the ability to conduct a safe, therapeutic, and comfortable patient visit.
Common requirements for an effective therapy dog handler:
- Is mindful of the therapy dog’s safety at all times
- Positively reinforces the therapy dog’s appropriate social interactions with patients
- Is keenly aware of the therapy dog’s body language cues that signal anxiety, stress, or exhaustion
- Provides comfortable, casual conversation with patients, caregivers, and family members
- Politely guides others in how to best interact with the therapy dog
- Demonstrates a high level of calm control over the therapy dog
With the proper training, handlers and their therapy dogs can confidently provide patients, caregivers, and families with a safe, soothing, and therapeutic environment.
Hospice therapy dogs are so much more than a simple visit with an animal. Therapy dogs and their handlers have the unique ability to bring transformative joy and comfort during a time when a patient’s outlook on life may be at its most grim. Hospice therapy dogs, using the longstanding bond between humans and dogs, bring joy, humor, unconditional love, and soothing companionship to those on the end-of-life journey. If you would like to learn more about hospice therapy dog program or therapy dogs, in general, contact the Alliance of Therapy Dogs.