Hospice therapy helps shed dog’s energy

SUNDAY, NOV. 14, 2010

Editor’s note: Writer Carl Gidlund and his wife brought a border collie puppy into their lives in spring 2009. This is a continuing account of their experiences.

Our Sadie is nearly two years old, and my wife Sally and I have decided it’s time she earned her keep.

That’s not in violation of child labor laws. Sadie is our border collie and her two years with us equate to 14 dog years. We haven’t found a statute that applies to teenage working dogs, so we think we’re safe from arrest.

As we’re constantly reminded by dog fanciers – and by Sadie herself – border collies are reputed to be among the brightest of breeds. By nature, she’s a herder.

Border collies are full of energy and have a compulsion to work, so we had to find her a job. We don’t have any sheep or cows, so until now Sadie has had to be content to herd our poor cat, Libby, and us.

I’m in my 70s and Sally is in her early 60s, so it’s been a challenge to keep up with – more accurately, stay ahead of – this enthusiastic and energetic pup.

She’s a graduate of a basic obedience course and has had a few weeks of agility training. She did well at both, but since we don’t want our backyard cluttered with the ramps, tunnels, jumps and bridges associated with the agility routine, we decided we need other outlets for her boundless energy.

In addition to her morning and afternoon walks with us and chasing balls, Sadie has another favorite exercise: running through a sprinkler. We bought a motion-activated device some months ago, thinking it would scramble the frequent deer and occasional black bear visitors from our yard.

While its value as a visitor deterrent is marginal, it’s turned into Sadie’s favorite toy. She creeps up on it until it leaps into life, then grabs a mouthful of water and dashes off, making sure she stays under the ensuing spray.

That’s great exercise, but we concluded Sadie wasn’t earning her keep. Besides, our water bills have been climbing.

Sally and I have been associated with Hospice of North Idaho for 10 years each, she as a nurse and I as a volunteer, so it seemed natural that Sadie should work with us. Accordingly, we had her certified as a therapy dog. Her job is to cheer up hospice patients. Those are folks whom physicians say are within six months of death if the disease that afflicts them proceeds on a normal course.

The visits have been going well. Sadie is an affectionate animal who seems to like all humans and most other dogs. She’s not an “alpha” dog that seeks dominance over others but regards fellow canines as buddies until they prove otherwise.

The hospice volunteer coordinator dispatches us to patients who have indicated to their social worker or nurse that they’d like a visit from a pet. Usually, that’s at an assisted living or skilled nursing facility.

First we strap on Sadie’s second collar with a red plastic bone on which is engraved, “I’m a Therapy Dog.” This may be a bit anthropomorphic, but she seems to take pride in the badge and knows she’s going to work.

When we get near the facility we stop near a patch of grass so she can relieve herself. That over, we proceed to our visit.

Most staff members seem to like Sadie as much as do the patients. They fuss over her and are rewarded with generous doggie kisses. As we stroll along corridors to the patient’s room with Sadie on a four-foot leash, we’re constantly stopped by residents who scratch behind her ears or pet her forehead. It’s a wonder her tongue isn’t worn out by all her thank-you kisses.

Once in the patient’s room it doesn’t take much urging to get her to approach the bed or wheelchair. And she really seems to enjoy the 10 minutes or so of cuddling that she gets.

The visit with our patient over, we wander through the facility if staff members permit that, allowing others to bond, momentarily at least, with this affectionate dog.

If you’re inclined to certify your dog for therapy work – and since November is Hospice Month, it’s a good time to do it – here’s how that works for Hospice of North Idaho: First, you must be trained as a hospice volunteer, a process that takes about 24 hours over several days.

Then a licensed evaluator, in our case affiliated with Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs, Inc., tests the candidate dog.

They note how the animal reacts to other dogs. If your pet is aggressive or thoroughly cowed, it will probably be disqualified. Next, the candidate is tested on basic commands including “come,” “sit,” “down” and “stay.” Then a “patient” is brought in on a wheelchair to assess the dog’s reaction.

A tribute to our gal: She’s not disturbed by wheelchairs as I’m told some dogs are. I guess she figures their occupants are just lazy people.

Perhaps the most difficult test for the pet is food avoidance. The examiner places something edible on the floor and you walk the leashed dog past it while warning the animal to leave it. That’s to ensure that while on a visit the dog won’t ingest tainted food or, perhaps, medicine that’s dropped to the floor.

So our Sadie is a working dog now, and we think she gets as much satisfaction from her tasks as if she had her own band of sheep.

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