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Buddy is pictured with Marilyn Modica. Tribune photos by Ron Adams

Therapy dogs at Rice Hospice in Willmar help bring comfort to dying patients

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Therapy dogs at Rice Hospice in Willmar help bring comfort to dying patients
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

Marilyn Modica is looking forward to the comfort she and her dog will soon be bringing to patients in Rice Hospice.

Buddy, a 6-year-old Peke-a-Poo, is a compassionate little dog who has "been really good" for his family, said Modica as she stroked his dark fur.


"He's got some qualities in him I've seen that I really feel would benefit others," she said. 'I just thought the two of us could really work well together."

Modica, who is from Willmar, and Buddy are among Rice Hospice's newest volunteers for its pet therapy program, Canine Care for the Journey.

The trained dogs and handlers bring furry companionship and solace to patients who are dying.

"Our bottom line is that they help to improve the quality of life," said Evy Hatjistilianos, volunteer coordinator for Rice Hospice.

In the seven months since the program was introduced, the Rice Hospice staff has seen the doggy visits make a difference, said Mary Beth Potter, hospice director.

"We've seen the value," she said. "It's something that gets people engaged. We've seen some wonderful results with decreasing symptoms, whether it's anxiety or pain. The staff are just so excited. One hundred percent of our staff are animal lovers, and to be able to provide this for patients and families has been a great opportunity."

She and Hatjistilianos said it was a longtime goal to add pet therapy to the list of other complementary therapies offered to hospice patients.

Over the course of more than 15 years, the hospice office amassed a stack of research about the health benefits of pets: their calming effect on blood pressure and heart rate, their ability to stimulate the release of "feel-good" endorphins and reduce pain, depression and loneliness.

Contact with a warm, furry dog can be highly therapeutic for someone nearing the end of life, Hatjistilianos said.

"There's that need for touch," she said. "The animal can give that."

Pets also help bring forth stories about people's lives, Potter said. "It opens up that opportunity for reminiscing. Generally those memories are very positive."

Funding was always the obstacle that kept Rice Hospice from offering pet therapy. Then last year hospice received two sizable donations, one from the annual Heinie Ridler golf tournament and the other from an estate, both earmarked for the costs of starting a formal pet therapy program.

The first six dogs and their handlers completed training in October. Interest remained so high that two more training sessions were held in June, bringing to 21 the number of registered therapy dogs who volunteer for Rice Hospice.

Six handlers, accompanied by seven dogs, perched on picnic tables at Robbins Island last weekend as trainer Molly Johnson explained the skills they'd need.

Johnson, a consultant with Canine Comfort LLC of Neenah, Wis., has trained and worked with therapy dogs for almost 20 years.

It's hard work, she warned the class. "It's going to be way more stressful for your dog than you ever anticipated."

But it's also rewarding, she said. "Your patients will be talking to everybody they know about their dog visit. It's not about what the dog does but about what happens when you're there."

There's a lot to learn: how to approach a patient who's in bed or in a wheelchair, how to handle distractions, how to use hand signals and teach new commands such as "Go say hi."

To reach this stage, handlers and dogs had to pass several hurdles. Each dog must undergo a health check and pass both a temperament test and the AKC Canine Good Citizen obedience test. Handlers also must complete 16 hours of hospice and volunteer training.

For three days, Johnson puts the handlers and dogs through their paces, culminating with three on-site visits at local nursing homes, where handlers and dogs are evaluated on their skills as they interact with the residents. Dogs who pass the test become registered with Therapy Dogs Inc.

Quality is important, said Mary Seifert, the Rice Hospice volunteer who coordinates the therapy dog program.

"We wanted to make sure we had registered therapy dogs," she said. "It shows that we are committed and that the handlers are committed and caring."

Volunteer handler Martha Alsleben said her 7-year-old Schnauzer, Will, is "just a natural" at being a therapy dog.

"He's friendly. He's calm. He's got a nice personality. He likes people," she said.

He smoothly handled his on-site evaluations, she said. "Some of the residents would come down the hall and he'd just sit right down with them. It just opens the conversation up."

Alsleben said she has always enjoyed working with dogs. "I just thought it would be a good fit," she said of the therapy dog program. "I think we're going to enjoy it. I am so glad that people realize the importance of animals and how they can help people."

At the Rice Care Center, one of the evaluation sites, "the dogs were a hit," said Allison Dirksen, activities director. "The residents loved them," she said.

The care center often has hospice patients among its residents who would benefit from a dog visit, she said. "It can be very comforting. Animals can initiate responses that people can't sometimes."

The addition of more dogs and handlers to the program means Rice Hospice can now make pet therapy more available to patients and families who want it. "We haven't had enough dogs to meet the demand," Hatjistilianos said.

From January through March, hospice therapy dogs made 50 visits. As data are collected about the program, stories are coming forth, like that of the nonverbal patient who began talking to Maxine, her canine visitor.

A dog named Sugar became such a favorite with one of the patients that her last request was to see the dog one more time, Potter said. "She saw her and I think the next day she died."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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