Therapy Dog Visits: Like One of the Family

By Janet M. Pepsin

“What do I need a dog for?”

When Barbara Devlin knocked on the door of Dorothy and Stella’s house for the first time, the reception wasn’t exactly an auspicious start to a relationship. Luckily, she went with the flow and laughed it off. Barbara knows more than a little about exactly why Stella, and others like her, might need a dog. She and her therapy dog, a Lakeland Terrier named Christy, have been doing in-home visits for five years.

Stella and Dorothy are a mother and daughter who live together and are, for the most part, homebound. Stella is 103 years old. She uses a walker. Dorothy just turned 84. She has mobility issues, the result of an accident that happened when she was only 5 years old. Despite Stella’s question, it’s clear she benefits from the therapy team’s visits.

Every week, Barbara and Christy visit Stella, and the visits always lift Stella’s spirits. Stella has her health for the most part, but her age is catching up with her. She and Dorothy don’t get out much, although they do have a lot of family activity around them when their extended family, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, come to visit. Still, their interaction with the outside world is minimal, and the visits are proof of life beyond the walls of their home.

“When I get there, we have a routine,” Barbara tells me. “Stella comes out from the back room, using her walker, and I pull out a dining room chair for her to sit on. Christy jumps up on the chair next to her, and Stella touches Christy’s head. Then Stella reaches down and takes Christy’s head in her hands, and gives her a big kiss”. They sit like that for a while, just being together. Sometimes Barbara will give Stella some of Christy’s kibble, and Stella gets a big kick out of putting the kibble on the plastic tablecloth and watching Christy eat it. Christy seems to sense that Stella is very old, and she will give her the respect to just sit there and let Stella talk to her.

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Mary Elizabeth and Jack had dogs their whole lives… larger breeds like German shepherds and huskies. They were married for sixty-six years. Mary Elizabeth is in her mid-90’s and Jack, in addition to being her husband, was Mary Elizabeth’s full-time caregiver. Mary Elizabeth has Alzheimer’s disease, and when Frank and Earl met her, her illness was in the early stages. Even then, it was too hard for these lifelong dog lovers to have a dog of their own.

Frank first started visiting them over two years ago, primarily to see Jack on a Veteran-to-Veteran friendly visit through Caregiver Volunteers of Central Jersey. He took his rescued Golden retriever Earl along for the ride, and Earl visited with Mary Elizabeth while Frank and Jack talked, sharing stories of the “old days”. From the very first meeting, Mary Elizabeth fell in love with Earl, and they formed a strong bond. Her face lights up whenever Earl comes in the room. She keeps a small bag of treats next to her, and she feeds Earl the treats, pats his head, rubs his belly and hugs him. Earl knows when they are going to visit, and gets excited knowing he is going to see his friend.

Jack passed away earlier this year, and Mary Elizabeth’s disease has progressed on the fast track since then. She is able to stay home because she has two in-home caregivers, and her daughter lives in the same senior citizen community. Sometimes now when Earl visits, she isn’t aware at first that he is there. Then she’ll fall asleep for a few minutes, only to wake up suddenly, see Earl, and act like a kid on Christmas morning.

The idea of pet therapy isn’t new, but one organization, Caregiver Canines®, has made it their mission to revolutionize the field. Both Earl and Christy are part of the Caregiver Canines® program. Traditional dog therapy has been placing teams into hospitals and nursing homes for years. Caregiver Canines® matches therapy dogs with homebound seniors in their own homes, a free service that creates lasting one-on-one relationships between dog-loving seniors and their canine friends. The program has been trademarked, and dog therapy organizations around the country are being trained to offer similar services through the National Volunteer Caregiving Network.

Therapy dogs in one-on-one home visiting programs fill a unique void in the lives of homebound seniors. Imagine being a lifelong dog lover, and not being able to have a dog of your own because of health or aging issues. As our baby boomers age, the bleak reality is that more and more people become homebound, cut off from the world because of health challenges or the decreased motility that comes with aging. Visiting Mary Elizabeth in her own home, where she and Earl can develop a relationship, Frank says, is like “a refilling of the soul. To see the smile, knowing that I’m bringing her just a little bit of happiness, is wonderful. Earl is a great boy, and he knows he is giving smiles”.

To find a Caregiver Canines® chapter near you, visit www.caregivercanines.org. Other therapy dog organizations, such as Therapy Dogs International (www.tdi-dog.org) and the Alliance of Therapy Dogs (www.therapydogs.com) may also be able to help.