Seattle Pup Spotlight
Advice. Ideas. News.
We adopted Buddy when he was a terrible two-year-old Jack Russell. His name had been Jack,
and we quickly changed it to Buddy. There are many
Jack Russell Terriers who are given away around age two.
Unsuspecting people fall in love with such a cute dog,
but 24 months later they are fed up and just can’t take it
anymore and get rid of them. (Jack Russell Terriers are
known for their intelligence and seemingly endless energy.)
We understood what we were getting into so we got him.
That was 14 years ago.
In 2011, I took a course to become a hospice palliative
care volunteer in Montreal. After passing the course,
I had to complete a dozen mentor shifts before I qualified
as a volunteer. Very soon afterwards, I asked if I could
bring Buddy with me. They said “YES!”, and I suggested
that before I did, I should get him certified.
So I contacted Therapeutic Paws of Canada (TPOC),
and signed up for their next certification. Certification
was a serious series of tests, a three-hour process.
There were probably eight other dogs present. For the first
test, Buddy and I were called to the middle of the room
where we met a guy in a lab coat who mimicked being
a vet. He touched the dog, pulled gently on his ears,
poked him, grabbed his tail, just to see how he reacted to strangers. There was a series of other tests over the three hours culminating with the two of us standing in the middle of the room when 6-8 people came from all sides quickly towards us making noise. There were people with crutches, walkers, canes, disabilities, wheel chairs and some were wandering around talking loudly (dementia). Most dogs passed. We are certified as a team: me "the handler" and Buddy "the dog."
Buddy got his vest, I got my polo shirt, and off we went. That was early 2012. We “worked” two shifts a week on the over 17-bed unit. Our team was a hit from the start. The shifts were 3–4 hours long and quite intense. It was important that we always had at least one day
between work shifts.
“Can I Pet the Dog?”
I have to say that Buddy loves it. Whenever I take out his vest he goes wild. We park the car, walk to the hospital, and then he pulls me through the door. It usually takes a good five minutes or more to get through the crowd that has congregated inside the entrance door of the hospital. “Can I pet the dog? ”
Our work on the Palliative Care Unit involved slowly entering a room to see if the patient was sleeping (I wouldn’t wake them), and if they were awake I’d knock lightly and introduce myself, Buddy on my arm. (I’ve built up my arm muscles over the years and am quite strong now!) I figured that I had 5–10 seconds to get some semblance of a smile or I was outta’ there.
“Would you like a visit?”
If the patient agreed, I’d usually place Buddy on the bed and let the patient pet him. (I always keep one hand on Buddy at all times for his sense of security.) Buddy and I would visit for 15–30 minutes or more. Often, I’d make the rounds quickly then go back for a second, long visit with patients who needed or wanted a longer visit. On average patients stay in the Palliative Care Unit for two weeks. Those in their second week are often less able to talk. Talking takes a lot of energy: thoughts, breathing, and talking are exhausting at that point. But they can listen and respond in simple ways. They would often respond to having Buddy placed on the bed near their arm and I could see some hand movement as they enjoyed his warmth. In those cases, there was often a visitor, usually a family member present. During these times, I’d also visit with them, validate their feelings, and engage them in any level of conversation they wanted, always remembering the solemn nature of the moment, the need to be respectful, and understanding that patients hear very well even near the end. In some cases, we’d take the discussion out to the family room.
In September 2014, we moved to Victoria. I had Buddy, or rather the two of us, re-certified, this time with Pacific Animal Therapy Society (PATS). I was not permitted to volunteer in the Palliative Care Unit until I had completed the local PC Volunteer training course. In the meantime, Buddy and I worked a two-hour shift in the Extended Care Unit (145 residents) once a week. After the PCU training, I completed some mentor shifts then I started volunteering in the PCU. Buddy and I have been “working” two shifts a week ever since. The shifts are shorter. The unit only has ten beds. Two hours is usually long enough to visit all of the patients. In addition, Buddy and I have continued volunteering with the Extended Care Unit and do a two-hour shift there as well. Visiting is hectic in extended care. On an average two-hour shift, we’ll interact with over 50 residents.
There are challenges: In extended care, many residents suffer from dementia, so the dynamics are very different. I have to really pay attention so no one hurts Buddy. In palliative care, it would be rare that anyone would have dementia; many are heavily medicated but still generally very kind. On the Palliative Care Unit, I was more concerned about Buddy making a sudden movement. He might want to stand up to leave and step on the patient. That has never happened, but it does require attention and handling because at some point Buddy wants to move, or to change positions, or get up.
At the End
When a patient dies in the Palliative Care Unit, there are usually family members present when at all possible. Often, after a patient dies, the family will gather in the room. The staff will post a sign on the closed door saying not to enter before seeing the nursing staff. When I see that I will ask and the staff will say the patient has died and the family has gathered. They will then say there is no point in visiting the patient. I respond that if it is OK, I will visit the family with Buddy. For a moment imagine, I knock softly and slowly open the door, invade their space—Buddy on my arm—and ask if they would like a visit. Invariably the family wishes to visit with Buddy. Often, as I enter the room I will deposit Buddy on someone’s lap. I have maybe two seconds to pick that person. Half of those present will hold the dog and hug him, sometimes squeezing him quite hard. I tell them that is OK, and it is. Buddy likes to be hugged. Of course, everyone is tearful but adding a warm, caring dog to the scene is a wonderful, unexpected surprise.
Volunteering with hospice care can be emotional. Times like these are personal and intimate and people ask me if I cry and what I do if I start to cry. Yes, I do tear up at times, sometimes often. If I cry, I will look around the room. If everyone is crying, (not bawling) I will stay. If I am the only one crying Buddy and I will leave. Volunteering with hospice care can be emotional but it is well worth it because I know I am making a difference in people’s lives.
Buddy is now sixteen-years-old. He is still agreeable, and I have never had an incident when volunteering with him, ever. He doesn’t get up as early as he did in the past; he usually gets up around 10:30–11:00 AM. On work days, I rouse him around 9:00 AM and then again at 9:30 AM so he can go out for a very short walk before we leave for our shift.
It is such a joy to volunteer with Buddy. We work so well together, and I feel we do a really good job. We have received the occasional third party or staff comments or letters about wonderful visits and the impacts we have made on residents or patients. Several of the other volunteers have commented that I have a big advantage over them. They go into a room, greet the patient, ask if they want anything, tea or coffee for example, and often the visit is over quickly, too quickly to establish a rapport with the patient. When I show up with Buddy, we get to stay for 15–30 minutes. Volunteers love long deep discussions with patients or their visitors. These conversations are sensitive, on topic, and very welcome by the patient or family present and rewarding for the volunteer. It is what we all want to do. Not just pour coffee. In fact, with a dog, I simply can’t pour coffee. So, I don’t.
When I hang up Buddy’s collar, I feel it will be a major challenge to continue volunteering. I want to take a break before getting another dog, maybe 2–3 years. If we do decide to adopt another, he/she would be five- to six-years-old, and it may take a year or two to get him/her secure enough for Palliative Care, but maybe less time for extended care.
Share and Enjoy the Life You Have!
Volunteering with hospice is all about risk, comfort level—mine and the dog’s—confidence, and knowing how to work with the audience in an instant. Such an endeavor is not for the faint of heart! But it is wonderful if you can pull it off. I encourage you to think about volunteering with your dog. It is something that is not only really appreciated by patients, staff, and visitors, but, it is also a lot of fun.
Past Seattle Pup Spotlights!
by Tracy Stober
by Jessi Iuraduri
by Brigit Stadler
by Noah & Ben
You Can Make a Difference:
Sharing Life’s Final Moments with Buddy
By Jeffrey Brooks
Buddy & Jeffrey Brooks