The wagging tail, the delighted body language, the adoring looks – there’s nothing like a canine companion greeting you at the door to lighten the load on a stressful day.
But dogs can mean even more for people whose stresses include cancer treatment, hospitalization or residence in a nursing home.
“It’s such a privilege to be invited into people’s lives at such a crucial time, when they’re hurting, sad, dealing with mortality,” said Holli Pfau, who now is working with her sixth therapy dog and sixth rescued golden retriever. “The dogs are something natural in an unnatural world. It helps people focus outward at a time when most things are inward – the worries, the hurting, the fear.”
Pfau takes her dog, Chatter, to Mercy Regional Medical Center and the Durango Cancer Center about two times a month. She also encourages others to get involved.
Gay Robson started taking Zeke to the Cancer Center in 2011.
“He had some training and had done agility and obedience,” Robson said. “When we stopped doing that, I decided we needed to earn our keep, and Holli suggested the therapy dog program.”
Robson also was inspired because a therapy dog had helped her husband, Ted, through his cancer treatment. Sushi the pug was his favorite because she was small enough to get in his lap.
Robson has been touched by every patient she and Zeke have visited, but there’s no question the pediatric cancer patient visits are the most powerful.
“We went in with Holli and Chatter one day and could hear a child screaming,” Robson said. “The nurse said, ‘I’m so glad you’re here. Come now.’”
The two women and two canines went into the pediatric treatment room to discover a little boy who was about 4.
“It was like somebody turned off a faucet,” she said. “His eyes got big, and he stopped crying. Pretty soon, he’s down on the floor petting the dogs. Then the nurse came in and was ready to put his chemo medicine in his port.”
The little boy was starting to tear up again.
“Holli said to him, ‘You know what we have here, don’t you? It’s double-doggy magic. We’re going to put Zeke on one side of you and Chatter on the other, and you can put a hand on each of them,’” Robson said. Then she didn’t say it wouldn’t hurt; she said, “It will make you strong.’”
After that, the women tried to be there every time he came in for his chemotherapy.
“He’s almost done,” Robson said. “He still loves seeing the dogs, but he doesn’t need them as a crutch as much.”
For Marla Stills, who’s finishing up her chemotherapy rounds, the dogs are a welcome break in days that can range from four to seven hours.
“Any way you slice it, it’s a long day,” she said. “The room can get pretty intense, and the therapy dogs and their owners give people something to do ... lightens the mood.”
She takes a selfie with each dog who visits her.
“I text it to my kids because this is pretty stressful for them, too,” she said about her 13- and 16-year-olds. “Then I post it on my Caring Bridge page.”
The dogs can be just as comforting for families as they are for patients.
“Sometimes Chatter is so sensitive and tender, it takes my breath away,” Pfau said. “One day in the hospital, we had a room where we knew the patient was dying. A family member came out of the room and was leaning against the wall, and you could tell she was trying to find strength. Chatter curled down and laid on top of her feet and so quietly and gracefully made a connection.”
The dogs are busy from the moment they arrive.
“It’s kind of like speed dating without the speed,” Robson said. “Sometimes it’s the staff who need the visit as much as the patients. It gives them a break from such a stressful job. One time, a nurse said, “I’m glad you’re here. We lost a patient last night,’ and we could see how much comfort we brought.”
Not just any dogs
It takes a special kind of dog, but not a specific breed, to be a therapy dog. Gail Gardner has been training and testing dogs for this caring duty for more than 30 years through Therapy Dogs International.
“They’re not required to go through the training,” she said, “but there are 14 tests graded pass/fail, and they have to pass all of them the first time. There are no do-overs, no try it again.”
In addition to basic commands, such as sit/stay, down/stay and coming on command, the dogs have to be comfortable around wheelchairs, crutches and walkers as well as tubing and machines common in health-care settings. Dogs must be a minimum of 1 year old to be a therapy dog.
“I have the equipment in the classes,” Gardner said, “and if a dog’s having a problem with a piece of equipment, I send it home with them so the dog can get used to it.”
What should dog owners do if they want a new puppy to grow up to be a therapy dog?
“Socialize the heck out of them,” Gardner said. “Expose them to all kinds of people, get them comfortable in all kinds of settings.”
A dog’s owner has a lot of responsibilities, too, including being comfortable with people at a tough and sensitive time. The dogs have to be washed and groomed before every visit because they’ll be around patients with suppressed immune systems. Robson said she is constantly wiping down chairs and patients’ hands with antiseptic after Zeke has been there. And knowing when a person doesn’t want a visit is as important as knowing when someone does.
They also have to be attuned to their dogs.
“She always gets excited when we’re pulling into Mercy,” Gardner said about her Papillon, Nellie, “and she might be a bit apprehensive at first. Then she realizes, ‘Everybody wants to see me,’ and really gets into it.”
Robson has found she has to keep an eye on Zeke.
“At first, he didn’t like the smell of the cancer center,” she said. “Now he’s used to it and just goes right in. If he’s getting tired, he’ll lie down on the floor. And when we get in the car to go home, he goes right to sleep.”
For Chatter, the visits are a highlight, Pfau said.
“I always tell Chatter, ‘Your job is to make people smile,’” Pfau said about their arrivals at Mercy. “And then she puts on her smile, and in we go.”