Therapy dogs bring comfort and joy back to palliative care unit

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Friday, September 22, 2023 – 09:39AM

By Carla Adams

Photo of Maiya the therapy dog.

Photo of Maiya the therapy dog.

One of the QEII Health Science’s Centre’s beloved volunteers enjoys a treat and a few ear scratches before beginning her shift at the Victoria General (VG) site’s palliative care unit. Maiya, an 11-year-old Labradoodle, has her own Nova Scotia Health identification card attached to her collar, and a red vest indicating she is a therapy dog. She will spend the next hour or so visiting patient rooms, and soon after will require a nap. It’s exhausting work, after all, being so loveable.

Following the challenging visitor restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic, four remarkable canines are once again engaging with patients, families and staff at the VG, providing joy and comfort to everyone they meet.

Under the watchful guidance of specially trained handlers, these four-legged heroes navigate the hallways and patient rooms, spreading smiles and bringing a sense of hope to patients and their families.

When Maiya enters the palliative care unit with her handler, Keltie English, a retired Nova Scotia Health physician, she is greeted warmly by staff at the nursing station. A sign on the wall reads “Welcome back, Maiya” and registered nurse kneels on the floor and gives Maiya belly rubs.

Maiya’s first patient visit is with an elderly woman who manages a smile and a pat as Maiya rests her head on the side of the bed. English facilitates the interaction and chats briefly with the patient.

“Although I engage the patients and families in conversation, the real benefit is the dog’s quiet presence, said English. “Some people just want to quietly pet her, or even hug or cuddle with her with no need for conversation. You can sense how much this physical contact seems to comfort people.”

English says other times, a dog’s presence gives both patients and visiting families something new to talk about, and a new sense of purpose. Visitors in the palliative care unit often face emotional distress and feelings of helplessness. The therapy dogs offer a much-needed distraction, providing a positive outlet for patients’ loved ones to engage and connect with, taking their minds off the challenges they face.

“Especially when children are visiting, I’ve seen a transformation in the room – from silence to happy chatting and laughter,” said English. “Often the patient really enjoys watching their children or grandchildren interacting with the dog, getting her to do silly tricks or giving her pats.”

Meanwhile, down the hall, Sadie, a five-year-old, chocolate brown American Cocker Spaniel, sits on a patient’s bed, “giving a paw” for a treat. Sadie is smaller than Maiya and fits nicely at the foot of the bed or nuzzled in under a patient’s arm.

Sadie’s handler, Joan Newman, is a retired psychotherapist who says she is honoured to be invited into people’s personal moments amidst changing times.

“I’m often moved by how Sadie senses people’s state and responds accordingly,” said Newman. “She has cuddled into a woman’s chest during her final days, yet she can just as easily dance in excitement for some patients. The rhythm of visiting is always changing, like life. I love being in the moment with all who cross Sadie’s path.”

The impact of therapy dogs on patients facing end-of-life challenges is powerful. Companion animals possess an innate ability to sense emotions and offer non-judgmental support, making them invaluable sources of comfort during difficult times. The presence of therapy dogs has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, promote relaxation, decrease feelings of loneliness and even alleviate pain.

“They’re all extremely gentle and docile animals that are very good at reading a room,” said Erin Fair, Volunteer Services Coordinator, Cancer Care and Palliative Care. “They will peek into a room and if they have this feeling that there is a patient that could use their love, they will go over and put their head either on the bedside, on the patient’s body, or they will go to a family member or support person and calmly place their head on them – not begging or looking for a treat – they just quietly sit there. It is remarkable.”

Recognizing the immense positive impact of therapy animals, Fair hopes to expand the therapy dog program to include other departments, such as cancer care.

Both English and Newman admit to benefitting from their volunteer roles as much as patients and families.

“I was struggling with the concept of ‘just being’ after an early retirement,” said Newman. “I missed the gift of being invited into people’s lives and guiding them through change. Now, it turns out I benefit equally as an observer, as I see the highs and lows of others’ aging and contemplate what comes next in life.”

“It is enjoyable to see how much joy and comfort a therapy dog provides to people,” said English. “I’ve met many interesting and thoughtful people over the years. And, it is a bonus to do hospital visits with my faithful dog companion at my side.”

The return of therapy dogs to the palliative care unit serves as a reminder that sometimes the simplest acts of kindness can have immeasurable effects, through the healing power of the human-animal bond, offering hope and compassion with every wag of their tails.

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