Dogs offer comfort to hospice patients through therapy program

They don’t care that your hair is gray, your skin is wrinkled or your teeth are false. Animals have been known to bond with humans on a much deeper level, lifting spirits and easing heart rates.

It’s for that reason therapy dogs are used as part of the pet therapy component of the Bonnie Schreck Memorial Complementary Therapies Program at Nathan Adelson Hospice locations. The program began in 1999 and has been a staple of care there ever since.

Besides pet therapy, the program also uses aromatherapy, reflexology, massage therapy, energy work and extra comforts, such as large-print books, movies, music, hand-knitted blankets, memory journals and art therapy.

The program is named for Bonnie Schreck, a dedicated wife, mother and community volunteer who died in February 1999. Her husband established a fund to keep her memory alive.

“This isn’t like hospital therapy dogs, where they walk down the corridor and everyone pets them,” said manager Lisa Browder, who oversees the program. “This is more (one-on-one). They might be with a patient for 20 minutes, or they might be with them for four hours.”

One of the newer therapy dog volunteers is Doree Pankratz, who owns Papi, a Pomeranian mix. She recalled knocking gently on a closed door and having a family member answer. The patient, an old woman, was unconscious, but she and Papi were welcome inside, the family member said.

“I took the patient’s hand and put it on Papi’s head,” she said. “I told her, ‘This is Papi.’ “

Then, something happened, and the energy in the room seemed to change, she said.

“You could feel it,” Pankratz said. “It was very special.”

Before being accepted into the program, the animals must prove they have the right temperament. Do they allow someone to reach for their food? Do they maintain their composure after a sudden bang? Are they at ease with crowds?

Likewise, the dog owners undergo intense training steeped in the hospice philosophy — treating patients with dignity and respect.

“The dog is not the focus; the patient is the focus,” Browder said.

Volunteers are fingerprinted, and a police background check is run. Even then, their first few visits are supervised.

“We don’t just turn them loose,” Browder said.

Jan Hanson has had a patient share a turkey sandwich with her dog, Kimber, a German shepherd. She’s also seen Kimber carefully jump up on the bed of a patient who was in a coma and curl up against him. There was a shift in the room’s atmosphere, she said.

“You just knew the patient was aware that Kimber was there,” she said.

Likewise, other therapy dog owners have seen the fingers of unconscious patients ruffle the heads of the dogs after their hands were placed there.

Even if the patient is not conscious, the therapy dog owner maintains a gentle conversation of sorts, letting the patient know that the dog is there to visit.

“The last sense to go is hearing,” said Browder, on why that’s important.

Kathy Schadewald is a dog trainer who brings her English bulldog Betsy to Nathan Adelson Hospice once a week. Betsy likes to be wheeled around in a wheelchair, which means Schadewald doesn’t have to lift the 55-pound dog up on beds all day to visit with patients.

She recalled a male patient who clasped Betsy’s ears gently and smiled into the dog’s brown eyes. He just kept fingering her silky ears and smiling.

“He started to tell me about a dog he had once, and I could tell he’d stepped away from the situation he was in,” she said.

Another time, Betsy, usually the epitome of good graces, seemed preoccupied with something in the adjacent room.

“She kept looking over her shoulder, like this, like she was trying to look through the wall,” Schadewald said, demonstrating. “Later, a nurse told me that patient had died while we were there.”

There are currently 27 dogs and one cat in the program. Cats must be able to walk on a leash and must be comfortable around dogs. Most volunteers are asked to be available once a week.

The animals seem to know they are going to the hospice.

Harriette Rowe’s dog, Bogey, a Shih Tzu mix, was rescued by Foreclosed Upon Pets Inc. She said he’s like a child, pestering her to hurry up and get going when they’re planning to go to Nathan Adelson Hospice.

“He knows Mondays are therapy days,” she said. “I don’t know how he knows, but he knows.”

The majority of the dogs in the therapy program are rescue dogs. Nathan Adelson Hospice, which has a location in the Summerlin area at 3391 N. Buffalo Drive, is taking donations through Jan. 31 of pet items such as blankets, towels and clean and gently used dog beds for area animal shelters.

For more information about the program, visit nah.org/about-us/bonnie-schreck-memorial-complementary-therapies.

Contact Summerlin/Summerlin South View reporter Jan Hogan at jhogan@viewnews.com or 387-2949.

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