Service Dog

What I Learned Working a Therapy Dog

Four years ago, when Kinsey certified as a therapy dog through Therapy Dogs International, I couldn’t wait to get started. I imagined hospitals and senior citizen centers thrilled by the prospect of visits with Kinsey. Reality was a bit more complicated.

I began by calling a local hospital. Unfortunately, they had disbanded their pet therapy program. (I imagined there was some kind of drama. If you were not aware, people and dogs generally include drama.) The next hospital I telephoned required a time commitment of two hours per week. I imagined once a month and only when it was convenient for me. (I realize now that this was a very self centered attitude.) The Ronald McDonald House didn’t have a dog program. For the most part, the senior citizen homes didn’t call me back, or if they did, they were concerned about liability.

therapy dog

Since phone calls hadn’t proved effective, I started talking to friends. One of them recommended volunteering through Hospice. She said that it was the best experience she’d had with pet therapy. People requested visits and were grateful when you showed up with your dog. To be honest, I never considered Hospice because I knew it involved death.

I talked to a couple of my friends with recently certified therapy dogs, and they thought we should try it together. Dealing with Hospice was a very different experience than cold calling facilities! Kate, the coordinator, returned my call quickly. She was delighted about the prospect of adding three more dogs to her pet therapy program. She set up a couple of evening training sessions, and a month later, we all became official Hospice Therapy Dog Volunteers.

Our first visit was an assisted living facility in Riverside. After we checked in, they made an announcement over the loudspeaker inviting residents to the lobby to visit with our therapy dogs. I don’t think anyone came on purpose. But, none the less, we met some interesting people. Over the course of the next six months, we went three or four times. We stayed for an hour and chatted with people passing by the lobby. Every time we went we saw new people. So, we didn’t make a connection with anyone, staff or resident. On what ended up being our final visit, there was some confusion. No one knew we were coming, and our visit conflicted with a presentation by the Boy Scouts in the dining area. They didn’t announce we were there, and we weren’t allowed to go into the dining area with our dogs to watch the presentation. After that, we gave up the assisted living facility.

Kate kept working to find us the right fit. Kinsey’s next patient was an elderly woman staying with her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. She was bedridden, and couldn’t talk much. But, she liked to pet Kinsey. I even showed her some of Kinsey’s tricks, both roll over and shake. Her son spent quite a bit of time talking to me, and thanked me for coming. I stayed for thirty minutes, and hoped I could return the next week. Unfortunately, Kathy emailed me a few days later and informed me the woman had passed away. Although I’d only met her once, I felt shocked and disappointed. I’d enjoyed the visit and thought Kinsey and I’d done some good. I wished we’d been able to visit one more time.

A few months later, Kate received another request for a therapy dog. Kate told me that Maggie lived within a twenty minute drive, was bedridden and suffered from congestive heart failure. I agreed to give it a try. It took me three trips through the sprawling apartment complex to locate her unit. I was a bit nervous, and late, when I knocked on her door. Her sister met me with a smile and took us to meet Maggie.

When Kinsey and I walked into her small room, Maggie’s grin stretched from ear to ear.  Immediately, Maggie wanted Kinsey up on the bed, right next to her. Kinsey is 60 pounds of muscle, and stuffing her into a single hospital bed next to an obese paralyzed woman was hard for me–logistically and emotionally. I didn’t want Kinsey to step in the wrong place, or scratch Maggie with her nails or whip her with in the face with her tail. Maggie had none of these concerns. So, I lifted Kinsey up and set her on the bed. She put her nose right in Maggie’s face and began to lick. Maggie couldn’t get enough. In fact, it became our ritual. When we arrived for a visit Maggie removed her glasses, Kinsey went up onto the bed and licked her face. I could tell Maggie felt disappointed when Kinsey did not want to lick her face for very long. Maggie also became a bit jealous of me if Kinsey wanted off the bed before our visit ended. I did my best to keep Kinsey settled and as close to Maggie as possible. But, an hour is a long time for a crazy Labrador Retriever to be still.

therapy dog
A long hike or a trip to the park would’ve helped Kinsey stay calm for our therapy dog visits. Unfortunately, with my work schedule it wasn’t always possible.

As the months went on, I got to know Maggie. She scratched Kinsey and told me about her children, the man she loved and the time her Chihuahua was killed by vicious neighbor dogs. She turned me into a Candy Crush addict. She let Kinsey and me into her life for one hour each week for nearly six months.

When I called to schedule a visit before Christmas, her sister sobbed to me on the phone. Maggie wouldn’t make it much longer, she said, but she had so enjoyed our visits.

I hope that she did. I hope that Kinsey and I made a difference.

After Maggie died, I tried visiting one more convalescent home through Hospice. Kinsey and I drove nearly 45 minutes, through traffic, after work for an interview. The manager didn’t spend more than five minutes with me, and then informed me that he already had volunteers bringing dogs in once a week. I wasn’t quite sure why he’d agreed to meet with me at all.

After that, I told Kate I couldn’t volunteer any longer. My niece, a year old at the time, needed me in the afternoons, and volunteering for pet therapy was a time commitment I could no longer make.

I learned a lot about what it takes to be a pet therapy volunteer. Not only the time, but the emotion involved. Your patients look forward to seeing your dog, and you can’t let them down. Then they’re gone.

I’m glad I got to know Maggie, and I’m glad Kinsey got to help people. That’s why she’s here. That’s why we’re all here.


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