WILLMAR - It was all about the dogs as Rice Hospice celebrated a milestone Thursday: the 100th dog to join its "Canine Care for the Journey" animal therapy program.

"We are thrilled. We are proud," said Deb Van Buren, hospice volunteer coordinator.

Party guests mingled, nibbled on dog-themed snacks and lined up to meet Willoughby, a retired greyhound and the newest addition to the program.

Canine Comfort for the Journey brings comfort to people in their final weeks and days of life with visits from the four-legged volunteers and their handlers.

The canine visitors have had an enormous impact over the years, hospice staff said.

Their friendly, accepting presence helps relieve anxiety and depression, spark happy memories and provide a distraction from physical distress, Van Buren said.

Volunteers have seen patients open up at the arrival of a dog.

Mary Seifert, who has been with the program since it was launched in 2009 and coordinates the canine volunteers, remembers her first visit with Maxine, her golden retriever.

The patient was depressed and had hardly spoken since entering hospice, but lit up while Maxine was there, Seifert said. "It was major, and we knew we'd done the right thing."

The 100 canines who have gone through the program come in all sizes, from a 2½-pound Yorkie to a 120-pound English bulldog. Some are rescues. Some are purebreds; others are mixed.

Dogs and handlers must successfully complete an assessment and training before they can earn registration from the Alliance of Therapy Dogs.

The dogs need to be patient and fearless, unfazed by wheelchairs or hospital beds and accepting of various ages and physical appearances.

Since 2009, more than 100 volunteer dog and handler teams have completed 1,700 hours of training and visited 550 patients, Van Buren said. There are currently 35 active teams covering 5,000 square miles of the Rice Hospice service area.

Willoughby's handlers, Leah Dvorak and Cory Dingels, wanted to do therapy work ever since they started rescuing greyhounds a few years ago. Willoughby made her first official patient visit a few hours before the party Thursday.

It's a way to bring happiness to people, Dvorak said. "It's hard to be sad when you have this wagging being who wants nothing more than to lick your face."

Molly Johnson, owner and CEO of Canine Comfort, is the official trainer for the Rice Hospice volunteer dogs and handlers.

She said it has been "an incredible journey" to see how the program has matured.

"It's a difficult volunteer opportunity," she said. "It's not an easy job, but it's a really important and really meaningful and incredibly rewarding opportunity."

Dogs and handlers retire or age out of the program each year, so there's a constant need for new volunteers, Van Buren said. Her goal is to eventually double the number of dog and handler teams.

In recent years the program has expanded to include furry visits to the Willmar Regional Cancer Center and the Rice Rehabilitation Center. Canine visits also are available to help Rice Hospital physicians and staff reduce stress and promote resilience.

Van Buren said she's "eternally grateful" for all of the canine volunteers and their humans.

"They open their hearts and devote their time towards impacting the lives of others," she said.