“I’m so happy to receive belly rubs and play fetch with my friend today.” 

“Maybe she just needs me to be still so she can pet my fur and share stories about her dog.” 

“If he’s experiencing high pain or anxiety, I’ll snuggle up close; I know it will help.”

“I can’t wait to meet new friends today.”

These thoughts belong to a pet therapy dog, on a mission to bring smiles, comfort, and unconditional love to hospice and palliative care patients. Pets possess an innate “sixth sense” when visiting patients, a skill honed through extensive pet therapy training alongside their handlers. For example, when Crypto dons his official scarf, he knows it’s time to get down to business. 

In celebration of World Pet Day on November 30, Heart to Heart Hospice recognizes our invaluable dog volunteers and their handlers. Ellen Holland, a Volunteer Coordinator for Heart to Heart Hospice in Southwest Indiana, has witnessed the benefits of pet therapy firsthand. “A pet therapy visit can reduce feelings of loneliness, isolation, and depression and is stimulating to patients. Many people like touch … and this can fulfill that need in a way that isn’t awkward in any way.”

Benefits of Therapy Dogs & Hospice

According to the National Institutes of Health, “Interacting with animals has been shown to decrease levels of cortisol (a stress-related hormone) and lower blood pressure. Other studies have found that animals can reduce loneliness, increase feelings of social support, and boost your mood.” 

Pet visits can also help alleviate pain levels, reduce blood pressure, lower stress, and mitigate anxiety. The physical, mental, and emotional advantages of animal-assisted therapy are measurable, even for patients facing terminal illness. 

“Therapy dogs are very good at sensing when someone is sick or dying,” says Amy Hofmann, a Volunteer Coordinator with Heart to Heart Hospice in Indiana. “Each therapy dog is a little different, but sometimes when they sense someone is sick or dying, they will lean closer to them, put their head on the patient’s bed or lap, or lay by their feet. Therapy dogs want the patients to know that they are there to comfort them.”

Handlers inquire about the patient’s desired level of interaction, allowing them to take the lead. The dog can serve as a friend, welcome distraction, comforter, caregiver, or playmate. Often, patients instantly relax as they lovingly interact with the dog. 

Extensive Training

While animal intuition is real, therapy dogs aren’t your average household pets. They undergo training to learn proper socialization and to be friendly, gentle, calm, and receptive to touch. Their handlers are trained alongside them to give proper commands and know how to interact with patients or nursing home residents.

The training process is both costly and extensive; it takes up to a year of classes and certifications, costing approximately $1,000 from start to finish. Dogs are recertified annually (or semi-annually) at an additional cost, plus injury insurance. The Heart to Heart Hospice Foundation can help offset the cost of therapy dog certification for qualified individuals who seek assistance. Several organizations provide pet therapy certification and training programs, including PetSmart and Pet Partners. 

During the peak of Covid-19, the pet therapy program in Indiana experienced significant growth, increasing to 16 therapy dogs, helping to lessen the feelings of loneliness and isolation. Residential facilities and individual patients (or their families) consent to pet therapy visits. Regular visits build a connection between the same dog, handler, and patient, but other nursing facility residents reap the rewards, as well.

“As our dogs walk through the facility to see their assigned patients, they stop and allow other patients and staff to love on them and experience all the benefits that their calming and gentle presence provides,” adds Ellen.

Without their “work gear,” therapy dogs are regular dogs who love to play, run, and beg for treats. But when they suit up, therapy dogs transform into superheroes. 

Contact Heart to Heart Hospice to explore volunteer opportunities for you and your dog, or if you are interested in pet therapy visits as a patient.