Four-legged Therapy

Who can resist the attention of a little furry animal with a happy disposition? That is how Victoria Hospice volunteer Jim Thomson describes his five and a half year old Papillon dog Theo, an official member of Victoria Hospice’s Pet Therapy program.

Victoria Hospice provides a comprehensive program of quality end of life care for their patients. The emotional comfort of hospice patients is equally as important as the physical comfort, and that’s where the Pet Therapy volunteers come in.

Once a patient has agreed to a pet visit, Jim says they always ‘perk up’ when he comes in the room with Theo. As for the people-oriented Theo, he loves the attention, loves to be cuddled and will even give little kisses if allowed. [Photo - from left to right: Tony Burnett, Ming, Theo, Jim Thomson.  Credit: Tony Bounsall]

Toni Burnett has been a Hospice Pet Therapy volunteer for twelve years, the first ten years with Kara, and now with eighteen-month-old Ming, both dogs Shih Tzu and Bichon crosses. She laughs when she says, ‘Everybody knows the dog’s name; ­ you’re just attached to the animal!’ Kara was so well loved at Hospice, that several families of patients who were very near the end of their lives asked for a final visit from the friendly dog. In each instance, Toni says Kara quietly licked and nuzzled the hand of the dying patient, finally laying her head on the person’s lap and letting out a big sigh as they passed away.

Jim describes a patient who had been unresponsive for a couple of days. When Theo hopped up on her bed and started licking her hand, she started smiling. Something had changed and the patient seemed aware of this offer of comfort from the little dog.  Toni says the patients appreciate that an animal does not judge. ‘It will look at you and agree with what you say. The patient does not have to talk. They can just lie there and stroke the animal.’

The presence of Theo or Ming is not only comforting to the patients, but it often prompts them to recall happy memories of their own pets, conversations which Jim and Toni happily encourage. Tom Arnold, Victoria Hospice Major Gifts Officer, says that sometimes visits by Pet Therapy dogs will inspire patients to have their own dogs visit them, which is something that Victoria Hospice encourages and facilitates.

[This article was originally published in the March 2012 edition of Focus Magazine.]

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Quality palliative and end-of-life care for all: Our mission is to enhance the quality of life for those facing life-limiting illness, death and bereavement through patient and family centred care, education, research and advocacy.