Al gave me a wonderful dog book for Christmas entitled: Good Old Dog Expert Advice for Keeping Your Aging Dog Happy, Healthy, and Comfortable by The Faculty of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. He had heard an excellent review of the book on NPR’s Fresh Air. I started reading it right away last night. I’m sure I’ll find it very helpful since I have my 15 1/2 year old Trudi – and with the other dogs in upcoming years.
Our precious Trudi, now over the 15 1/2 year mark, has reached the distinction of being our oldest living dog. Al and I had an Afghan Hound years ago that lived to be 15 1/2 – and when I was a child, my Standard Poodle lived to be 15. But in the last several years, sadly our last two dogs, Phoebe and Julia, have died much too young.
Trudi is like the Energizer Bunny – she keeps on going. About 4 years ago, it appeared that she might not have much time left, but, like the cat with nine lives, she’s still with us! She has mostly good days, with a few bad days sprinkled in. During these periods, I watch her very closely, so far – she’s bounced back to having her good days. I’ve learned through the years (the hard way) to realize that when the bad days out-number the good days by a long-shot, then it’s time to make a decision. Again, I keep a careful eye on her. I’ve come to understand that prolonging a dog’s life because I can’t bear to lose her, is for me, and me only – I’m not helping my beloved dog by doing this.
But, as I said, Trudi keeps on going. She’s become quite thin, her eyes are clouded by cataracts, and she’s a bit arthritic. English Setters are a breed that require a certain amount of grooming to keep their coats looking as they should. Well, Trudi is now exempt from all that… she’s growing a long fluffy coat and gets a good weekly brushing and nail trimming while lying comfortably on her soft dog bed. Even this can be hard on her, at times. But keeping up their hygiene is important to their continued good health. I take care to be sure rooms that she’s in or entering are well-lit. She sees well enough in a bright room. Her daily walks consist of a morning walk to the mailbox at the side of the road to pick up the newspaper and an afternoon walk back to the box to get the mail. She gets a couple of good romps in the back field with James and Annabelle – often leading the pack – perhaps heading to check out a flock of wild turkeys in the back field. I try not to leave her in the house for more then 3 or 4 hours at a stretch when I go out. She needs to eliminate more frequently now and it’s harder for her to hold it in.
New England winters can be especially difficult on a senior dog. Getting around in more then a few inches of snow is tough. I go out on my snowshoes and make paths all over the field for her. After packing it down a couple of times – she’ll run around on the pathways following me on my snowshoes. It’s a fun game we play and the other dogs love it, too. For Trudi’s sake, I’m hoping it’s a mild winter.
Trudi has given so much to us since she came here to live at the age of 7 years. In return, we owe her the same… love, comfort, and kindness – and that she will most definitely receive from us.
I get to meet a lot of really nice people – and dogs – as a therapy dog evaluator for Bright Spot Therapy Dogs, Inc. It was actually years before I founded Bright Spot – while I was the volunteer coordinator for the MSPCA’s Pet Visitation Program back in 1997 – that I met Denise. Denise is not just a doglover – she has lots of different animals and, of course, several dogs. Aside from doing therapy dog visiting with one of her dogs, she trains dogs to be seeing-eye dogs. Denise had come to me to have one of her dogs evaluated to be a therapy dog. I knew right away that she was a very caring person; loving animals and caring deeply for people. As I got to know Denise, I found out that on Christmas Day, she would leave her family at home and go to the nursing home she visited on a regular basis – to make a special visit to everyone there on a day that might not be so special for them being away from friends and family. I was concerned that they might not have any visitors on Christmas and they love seeing the dog, she told me. Denise has moved away from the area and is now living in New Jersey – living on a mini-farm perfect for her animals. I have no doubt she is doing many kindnesses for both animals and people in her new hometown – and will be remembering those in need on Christmas Day.
On Thursdays, James and I head to the nursing home just 7 minutes from our house. Since he had an off day with his hospice visiting yesterday, I was especially watchful of him – both while brushing him for his visiting and when we first arrived. But, within minutes, I knew he was himself again. Down the hall he headed and into the physical therapy room to make the rounds of the folks there. Then, with two of the physical therapists, James and I headed upsides to the Alzheimer’s Unit to work with Constance who continues to spend most of her time in bed. As soon as she saw James come into her room, she grabbed for his leash and said, Can I take him for a walk? The physical therapists carefully guided her to her feet and with her walker – James’ leash in one hand – the four of us walked all the way down to the end of the corridor and back. All the while, Constance was grinning and saying, He likes me! I love him! He’s so beautiful! We then lead her to a comfortable chair in the gathering area outside the nurses’ station where she sat and James sat next to her…. all the while she was grinning… she then turned to the woman sitting next to her and said, See my dog? He likes me! The woman replied, He’s so good. What’s his name? Grinning, Constance replied, James. I love him! At this point, the two therapists were in tears… Constance had refused all week to walk the corridor with them to get exercise and had spoken very little. They left me with Constance and James and I stayed and talked with her for quite awhile. Another very special visit. It’s hard to break away when such magic is occurring… We will be back soon.
On Wednesdays, James and I visit hospice patients. We are currently visiting two patients who are both in the same healthcare facility. Our visits always leave me glad that I made the 56-mile round trip to get there and back. When leaving, you know, without a doubt, that you have brightened that person’s day. How could I not feel good about that – no matter how far I had driven?
Today was an off day for James. He has them – rarely – but they do occur. He was excited as we prepared for the visit – he gets a thorough brushing and I suit him up in his therapy dog vest and ID badge. He was set-to-go and jumped in the car. No problems there….. had there been at this point, I would have called off the visit. Anyway, on we went. He was greeted by several residents as we made our way through the lobby. We arrived at our first patient’s room and he simply didn’t engage – she was in bed today, rather then sitting in her chair, so I directed him to lie down along side her on the bed (he’s done this before with her). He kept fidgeting, changing position. Just not settling down. The patient said, James is restless today! I then directed him to get off the bed and he quietly lay down on the floor. He assumed a relaxed position – and the patient started to direct her conversation to me. Again, had he not been fine settling down on the floor by my feet, we would have left. Your dog comes first – always. Never force a visit. In the end, we had a patient who was happy that we stopped by – and James found himself a spot that satisfied him while a short visit ensued. We then headed to the second patient and the same scenario occurred. This time he sat looking out the window (wooded surroundings – possibility of seeing a bird or a squirrel!), I chatted for a short while and we said our good-byes.
If only they could talk… I don’t feel that James was ill in anyway. I think he was just having an off day – and because he loves his visiting opportunities, I don’t want to force him into anything and have him start to balk at going. Read your dog’s signs… if he could talk, what would he be telling you?
Having your dog certified as a therapy dog through a registered therapy dog organization holds special benefits for the dog’s owner. The prime benefit that comes with membership in an organization is volunteer liability insurance. When I started visiting with my first certified therapy dog back in 1992, very few dogs were allowed in facilities of any type. But, if dogs were allowed to visit back then, that meant any dog – certified or not. Things have changed a lot in 18 years… on the plus side, the positive effects therapy dogs have on folks in healthcare facilities and educational programs have been recognized and appreciated, on the negative side, lawsuits of all types have increased causing concerns about liability to develop. When speaking to an insurance broker, I was informed that anything to do with dogs is ranked #2 on the risk factor; risk of fire being #1. Facilities and programs are conscious of this situation and most require that a visiting dog be certified through a registered therapy dog organization and carry liability insurance through that organization.
Beyond this, belonging to a local or national therapy dog organization will offer additional benefits. Bright Spot Therapy Dogs, Inc. offers a very generous membership package including: liability insurance, official Bright Spot dog vest, T-shirt, ID badges for the dog and owner, membership handbook, list of visiting opportunities, monthly members e-newsletter, and the annual Bright Spot News, as well as member support. Check with your local or national therapy dog organizations to find out what benefits they offer – but of utmost importance, be certain that membership includes liability insurance. You are responsible for your dog – if there is an incident, it is you who will be sued. Don’t take chances!
The answer to this question is more complex then you might expect. People come to me all excited. They’ve read about the volunteer therapy dog program at the hospital and want to visit there with their dog. Or they want to visit hospice patients with their dog; or participate in the children’s Reading to Dogs Program at the public library. All of these, definitely, are great places to visit, but when making the decision as to where you and your dog will do your visiting, BOTH ends of the leash must be considered. Take the hospital program mentioned above… a quiet and especially well-controlled dog is needed for this type of medical environment. Patients are in the hospital because they are sick. The dog needs to be extremely adaptable to this setting. And, the human volunteer must attend special training, then annual retraining, to volunteer at the hospital. The hospice setting is similar, as far as the dog goes; for the person, there is extensive training before you start – and the knowledge that the person you are visiting definitely is at the end of life. This can be tough – and not for everyone. As far as working with children, I caution people about the high liability risks involved when working with children. You want to be certain that your dog won’t ever get startled by a child’s sudden movement, turn and bite the child. Your dog should definitely have been raised with children in the home or highly socialized around children. The perfect match is one that works for YOU and for the DOG. You’re a TEAM!
As an evaluator, I make recommendations to folks after I have evaluated their dog, based on my observations of the dog’s personality, controllability, predictability, and level of interaction with the residents we visit. Bottom line, you must be honest with yourself as to your dog’s talents, limits, likes and dislikes. You want this to be an enjoyable experience for both of you. One that you’ll never want to stop doing. Select your place wisely – and if it’s not the right fit for you and your dog – try a different environment and age group.
Bright Spot Therapy Dogs, Inc. has over 50 facilities (a wide variety of programs and populations) requesting our services. There are many places in your area where you and your dog can visit. Joining an organization such as Bright Spot will offer guidance in making your selection.
Living in the hills of western Massachusetts, I have the luxury of being able to walk right out the door into the woods or onto the country road for a pleasant walk with the dogs. We do this early in the morning around 6:30 AM – it’s so quiet and peaceful then… my favorite time of the day. At this time of the year, the air is crisp and the sun is shiny and bright. Occasionally, we’ll run into a flock of wide turkeys. They’re so tame around here (and plentiful), they don’t fly off when they see the dogs approaching. We’ll often run into a neighbor or two and stop for a chat. Later in the day, the dogs love it, too, when I pop them in the car and head to a section of the bike path. In our area, we have miles and miles of contiguous bike paths connecting several area towns. Here the dogs get to meet people and other dogs along the way, stop and socialize for a few minutes, and move along. It’s a great place to socialize a puppy or dog in training to be a therapy dog. Sometimes we’ll meet up with a friend and take the walk together. The dogs love their special walking time – and so do I – wherever we go.
Not just nursing homes… When asked once to be the speaker for the monthly meeting of a civic organization, the person calling me said, We’d like to hear about what it is that you do with your dogs in the nursing homes. I responded by saying that we visit in lots of other places besides nursing homes. The caller was so surprised. The slideshow I presented at their meeting with 44 photos of our volunteers visiting in a variety of settings and with all age groups, was quite an eye-opener. This caller is not the only one who didn’t realize how widespread the use of therapy dogs is today. People inquiring about doing this work themselves with their dogs have had the same impression. Do I have to visit in a nursing home? is not an uncommon question. The value of therapy dogs interacting with people has become far more widely appreciated and accepted since I started visiting in the early 90’s. Studies bear out the mental, as well as physical benefits of using therapy dogs in both healthcare facilities and educational programs. You’ll see therapy dogs in school classrooms, children’s reading programs in libraries, hospice, rehab centers, hospitals, senior centers, and mental health facilities, as well as nursing homes and any other place therapy dogs can be of help.