91: The Natural

91: The Natural

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Very Good, Very Bad Dog

The Natural

Fun fact: Therapy dogs at hospices provide comfort not only to dying patients, but also to their families.

After responding to an advertisement for volunteers at the hospice, I sat chatting with the volunteer coordinator. The hospice had been open for about a year, a very welcome addition in our community, and now was looking for special personnel to visit and comfort residents in their waning days. I reached down and unfastened Roxy’s leash as she kept her big brown eyes on the coordinator, as if she was taking it all in. “She’s not exactly what I was looking for,” the coordinator stated. “I was hoping for a lap-sized dog, but she certainly is gentle and talks to you with her eyes.”

“No, she’s not a lap dog; she’s a Lab — a small one as she was the runt of the litter — but she thinks she should be a lap dog, too,” I stated. “She also understands grief. She curled up beside her mother when she was dying, and she grieved for several months. So when someone is feeling down or not well, she senses it and tries to offer her empathy and comfort. She works hard at trying to please.”

We walked down the hall with the coordinator. Roxy started to enter one of the rooms, but I told her, “No,” and she continued to follow. The coordinator took her into the next room where she was fondly greeted. Immediately, Roxy cuddled up to the patient, who was sitting in his wheelchair. “Well, she’s winning me over. Let’s try her and see how she works out,” suggested the coordinator.

As I was a full-time caregiver to my daughter, we arranged for us to drop off Roxy and pick her up again at the end of her shift. Another volunteer would oversee her. And thus Roxy became the first dog volunteer at the new Foothills Country Hospice.

The first few visits, she arrived with her leash on, but after a couple of weeks it was no longer required. Upon entering the facility, she would stop at the door while her feet were wiped and, when given the okay, she would first say “hi” to the volunteer at the front desk and anyone else close by, and then be escorted to a resident’s room. Soon, she was also strolling unleashed alongside wheelchairs as residents enjoyed the fresh air and beauty of the pathways and gardens outside. Being on duty, she never took off chasing gophers like she did at home on the farm.

Baths before visits became a regular chore, and Roxy obediently stepped in to the shower even though this was not one of her favourite activities. Rolling in stinky things was more to her liking, but she quickly associated baths with volunteer days.

For weeks, one volunteer helped hoist Roxy up on the bed to lie beside a resident who was extremely weak. Roxy lay quietly beside the resident, soaking up and giving as much attention as she could. Eventually, the volunteer discovered that Roxy didn’t need help, just a small invite and she would climb, ever so gently, onto the bed by herself. Before long, she was up on the couch or bed whenever she felt someone wanted her love. She found her way into the fireside room and the chapel area when functions were going on and greeted everyone. One day, she lay unsupervised beside the tea cart during a memorial tea. She did not even try to take a morsel of the tempting goodies for herself. She never barked in the facility and always seemed to be looking for approval that she was doing the right thing. If she wasn’t needed, she snoozed by the front desk.

Roxy always arrived for duty with a smile, and as her popularity grew, one shift a week became two. The residents, staff and volunteers looked forward to her company and sought her out. She did, however, seem to have a built-in clock and would often be watching the doorway if we were a little late in picking her up. People would go in and out, but she never tried to escape. She just waited for her family.

We were told stories about how much comfort Roxy was providing. One young woman was losing her husband. When the volunteer came to check on Roxy in that room, the resident was asleep, but Roxy and the young wife were curled up together on the floor as the woman poured her grief into Roxy’s fur. One family had the hospice call us when their loved one passed away. They needed Roxy’s companionship, so she made her rounds to console the various family members in the fireside room as they grieved and made funeral plans. Another family made special mention of Roxy’s care in the loved one’s obituary.

People had their pictures taken with Roxy, and one woman had hers enlarged and hung over her bed. Visiting children loved playing with Roxy. Older ones took her for walks. Regardless of how rough some little ones were with her, sometimes pulling her tail or poking her eyes, she never showed any signs of aggression and gave them all the kisses they could want. It gave their parents time to spend with their failing loved ones.

People who saw us downtown began recognizing us as Roxy’s family. Knowing that sometimes residents did not have many visitation days left, we were happy to provide this service for them. We felt bad when we had to be away, causing Roxy to miss her visits.

Other dogs have since joined the program to visit different days accompanied by their owners. Having watched how Roxy worked, we decided that even if we were available to accompany her, she worked better without us. She was totally trustworthy and sensed what people needed. As things were, when a volunteer escorted Roxy to a room and left her with the family, they were free to seek her comfort privately, and she would respond unconditionally.

For six years now, we have continued to bathe, groom and transport Roxy to and from the hospice twice weekly as well as to other occasional special events. Roxy, now ten years old, remains top dog — a hospice favourite — and she relishes her time there. Last year, she also began volunteering with the Literacy for Life Foundation, which uses dogs to help reluctant or struggling readers in elementary schools. The kids read to the dogs and feel more enthusiastic and less self-conscious that way. She gives cuddles and kisses there, too.

Roxy is a busy girl, and she keeps us hopping with her volunteer schedule. We are happy to help Roxy, the little yellow Labrador Retriever, make a difference. She gives her heart to everyone who needs it.

~Irene R. Bastian

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