Rice Hospice’s Therapy Dog Program Reaches a Fetching Milestone

Published in News Author: Carris Health

In 2009, Carris Health - Rice Hospice had a vision to train therapy dogs for comfort, support, and animal companionship. Less than a decade later, they achieved a milestone they never dreamed of when they started this journey…100 registered therapy dogs.

Becoming a registered therapy dog is not about the type of breed, but rather about the individual personality and temperament. Those 100 dogs come in all shapes and sizes. The largest is a bulldog weighing in at 120lbs, and the smallest is a 2.5lb Yorkshire terrier. What about the coveted 100th dog? She’s a greyhound named Willoughby. Regardless of breed and size, all have one thing in common – wanting to show love and affection towards others.

Dog and handler teams go through a training process that starts with temperament evaluations, classroom education, and on-the-job observations. The final step is earning the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen certificate, and successfully completing the rigorous Alliance of Therapy Dogs testing and observations to become a registered therapy dog team. Rice Hospice has invested over 1700 hours for the training process. Director, Mary Beth Potter, understands the value pet therapy has brought to the organization. “The investment of time and money in starting and maintaining a pet therapy program has been returned a hundred-fold when you see the comfort, joy and companionship the dogs bring to our patients,” said Potter.

Molly Johnson, BS, KPA CTP, owner of Canine Comfort, LLC. has been a partner with Carris Health - Rice Hospice since the very beginning. Molly has screened, interviewed, trained, and tested every one of the Rice Hospice therapy dog teams. It’s all been worthwhile according to Johnson, “It’s been an honor to be part of such a special and meaningful program. We are very careful in our selection, training, and testing process to ensure the highest quality teams to protect the safety of all involved. It’s humbling to think about the unforgettable difference these therapy dog teams will make in the lives of so many people.”

The community is who can really take pride in pulling this feat off. Without volunteers from west central and southwest Minnesota being so willing to donate their time and their four-legged best friends with patients and their families, Rice Hospice couldn’t have reached this milestone. “We are eternally grateful for all of our therapy dog teams. They open their hearts and devote their time towards impacting the lives of others,” said Deb Van Buren, Rice Hospice Volunteer Coordinator.

All of the volunteer handlers have stories to tell about their experiences, but some of the most memorable ones are told time and time again. A patient confided in her therapy dog her wishes for her funeral because the family was struggling to grasp that these were the final days. A patient with memory loss started telling stories of her childhood dog. A patient whose personality had changed through Alzheimer’s laughed for the first time in months. “This is why we do what we do,” said Brittney Odens, a volunteer handler for Rice Hospice. “To see the joy that your dog brings to patients and their families is invaluable. Not only do they have those memories, but I’ll carry those with me for the rest of my life, too.”

Expanding beyond hospice care

Seeing first-hand how interaction with therapy dogs elevates a person’s mood, decreases stress and anxiety, and provides a diversion from physical discomfort, Rice Hospice has expanded the utilization of therapy dogs in other areas of Rice. The canines make their rounds through the Carris Health Cancer Center visiting with patients receiving treatment. They are used for motivation during physical and speech therapy sessions at Rice Rehabilitation Center. And in a world where physician burnout is high and resiliency is a topic all health systems are addressing, the dogs are available for visits with Rice staff.

Doubling the goal

There are always opportunities to add more furry volunteers to Rice’s repertoire. As a dog ages and their heath declines, they have to step back from volunteering and another dog is needed to fill its place. Rice Hospice wants to see the goal of doubling the number of registered therapy dogs.

Molly Johnson is hosting educational classes at Rice Memorial Hospital on December 1 and 2 for those that are interested in training their dogs to prep them for therapy work. One class is dedicated to an important aspect of dog training: positive reinforcement.