How Dog Visits Can Enhance End-of-Life Care
Benefits of Dog Interactions
“When an 85-pound mammal licks your tears away, then tries to sit on you lap, it’s hard to feel sad,” says Kristan Higgins, best-selling contemporary romance author and avid dog lover.¹
Dog owners the world over will attest to the companionship, unconditional love and happiness their beloved best friends bring to them. It is these qualities that have made dogs important to humans throughout the ages and why today dogs are being used more frequently to comfort and cheer those in facilities who are old, ill, despondent or unresponsive.
And the evidence is scientific, not just anecdotal. Numerous studies have been conducted to determine the mental and physical benefits of dog visits. One 30-minute session of interacting with a dog has shown to enhance hormone levels of dopamine and endorphins associated with happiness and well being.²
Today, healthcare professionals agree that petting and cuddling a dog can lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce anxiety and ease depression.³ The use of visiting dogs has extended beyond hospital settings and nursing homes, with hospice providers now offering dog visits as a way to improve quality of life near the end of life.
Learn more about the VITAS Paw Pals program
Dog Visits Enhance End-of-Life Care
Since the primary goal of hospice is to provide comfort and dignity for patients near the end of life, dog visits can enhance the services hospice patients already receive. Just as massage, music and art are used therapeutically with certain patients, the comfort of a dog’s head placed trustingly in a lap or the warmth and texture of its fur under a patient’s hand can have unexpected results. Patients who are actively dying have become less agitated when they feel the presence of a dog on the bed or at the bedside.4
For residents who must leave their dogs behind to go into a long-term–care facility or nursing home, a visit from a friendly canine can help them miss their best friends a little less. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard patients say things like, ‘I have two dogs but my daughter takes care of them now,’” says Vickie Villavicencio, owner of Rogue, a mini-Schnauzer who is one of VITAS’ Paw-Pals® pet volunteers. Rogue visits two nursing homes in their area, where, according to Vickie, patients who can no longer take care of their own dogs brighten when he visits.
Having a dog present can also conjure pleasing memories for patients. “One of the patients we visit is a 95-year old woman who pets Rogue and tells me stories about the dogs she had when her two boys were growing up,” says Vickie. “I’ve heard these stories before, but I’ll keep listening; she’s so happy telling them.”
In some cases, the dog can become a catalyst for patients who avoid others or refuse to socialize. Studies have shown that difficult-to-reach patients have been known to become “chatty and reactive” when a dog visits. When the dog is present, these patients become more relaxed and begin to converse with others. Even after the dog leaves, they remain genial to the staff and other residents.”5
Therapy Dog, Service Dog, Visiting Dog—What’s the Difference?
Therapy dogs are those used by trained and credentialed handlers in a clinical therapy setting. These dogs are used specifically to facilitate the therapy goals of the healthcare provider and the patient.
Service dogs are defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as, “… dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.”6 These dogs are recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice under the ADA.
Visiting dogs are those used by organizations that enlist volunteers with dogs for animal-assisted activities, such as visiting the elderly. These dogs and their handlers have met certain criteria and received training from the organization. They are used to improve the lives of those they visit through animal-human interaction.
What Makes a Good Visiting Dog?
Being a certain breed or size makes no difference when it comes to successful visiting or therapy dogs (see accompanying article, “What’s the Difference?”). They just have to be well behaved, mild-mannered and friendly.
Dogs visiting in a hospice situation are confronted with unfamiliar sounds and scents, strangers’ homes, being touched by many different people, the surroundings and activity of a residential or health facility, and more. Not every dog is a good candidate. Most hospice programs look for the following traits when deciding if a dog is appropriate or not:
- One year of age or older
- Friendly with other dogs
- Obeys its handler
- Enjoys being touched by strangers
- Well-behaved; doesn’t jump on people
- Walks well on a leash
- Stays calm around strange or sudden noises
- Can be around different smells without the need to “mark” its environment
- Not afraid of people who walk unsteadily or with canes, walkers, wheelchairs, etc.
- Current on all required vaccines
- Clean and well-groomed
Before the First Visit
Before visiting patients, the dog and its handler are trained. Training for the dog involves having a “tester” observe how it handles encounters with strangers, walking on a leash, being with other dogs and any other situation the hospice tester deems necessary to ensure a successful patient visit. For the handler, the hospice provides specialized volunteer training on interacting with the terminally ill.
Vickie is convinced that Rogue has developed a special understanding of hospice patients. “Once, Rogue and I went into the room of a patient who was in the process of dying. He was very still, staring into space. I don’t know if he heard me, but I asked him if he wanted to pet Rogue. I went ahead and put the dog on the bed beside him and put his hand on top of Rogue’s head. Rogue was very calm. I saw the man’s fingers start scratching Rogue’s head. I think he knew the dog was there and I think Rogue knew this was an important moment.”
If you want more information on becoming, with your pet, a VITAS Paw Pal or receiving a visit from a VITAS Paw Pal, visit this page.
¹ “50 Famous Quotes About Dogs.”
² “The Health Benefits of Companion Animals.”
³ “The Health Benefits of Companion Animals.”
4 Van Pelt, Jennifer. “Animal-Assisted Therapy in Hospice Care.” Social Work Today. Vol. 10, No.1, p.8.
5 "The Health Benefits of Companion Animals.”
6 ADA Requirements Service Animals.