The role of canine companionship in end-of-life care

If you have a pet, you likely understand the unconditional love and companionship a pet provides. At McLaren Hospice, we understand the joy animal companionship can bring and offer pet therapy to our hospice patients at no cost.

Husband and wife Dean and Sharon Hartman are both volunteer pet handlers with McLaren Hospice and have two therapy dogs, Buck and Apollo. The couple have been volunteering with McLaren Hospice for three years. Prior to volunteering with McLaren, they ran an after-school pet therapy reading program for children. Dean and Sharon were introduced to McLaren pet therapy through their veterinarian and now solely volunteer their dogs with McLaren Hospice. 

7-year-old Australian shepherds Buck and Apollo were AKC show dogs prior to being adopted by the couple. Sharon and Dean explain their personalities as opposites; Buck is very social while Apollo is more mild-mannered. They explain that this works well with different patient personalities. 

"These dogs do wonderful things and bring pure joy to people just before they pass on. With pet therapy, we bring peace to patients when there is none," Sharon expresses.

Apollo therapy dog Buck therapy dog

McLaren Hospice volunteer services supervisor, Matt Meeuwse, explains that each pet therapy visit is specific to connecting to patients and their individual needs. 

"Pet therapy is used to enhance quality of life for our patients. Hospice patients are often referred because they had pets of their own, and pet therapy can help bring back memories and positive experiences from the past. We also work frequently with patients who cannot communicate verbally. We connect with a lot of patients who are unresponsive, but respond to pet therapy."

"100 percent of the time, when a volunteer takes a pet to a facility, someone will engage with the pet. The staff, the patients and their families, and the residents at the facility all enjoy it. Undoubtedly, someone benefits from this service every visit we make," Matt adds.

Therapy dogs must first successfully complete training through Therapy Dog International (TDI) or an equivalent therapy program, and have proof of up-to-date inoculations before they can visit patients. The therapy pet's owner must also complete 14 hours of hospice volunteer training. 

Matt explains that although this therapy may not be for everyone, there are many who can benefit. "Volunteer handlers and therapy pets are trained to engage with patients of any capacity. If, for example, a patient is bed-bound, we have handlers who will allow their pet to sit on his or her lap, and will visit with the patient at their bedside."

"Apollo will sit next to a patient and after a while will actually lay his head down on their feet, on their bed, on their wheelchair, or on their lap. He is happy to give lots of kisses, too. Both dogs are very tender with patients," share Dean and Sharon. 

Australian shepherds are highly active dogs and Dean and Sharon plan to keep volunteering with Buck and Apollo as long as they both still enjoy it.

To learn more about pet therapy at McLaren Hospice, call (810) 496-8757.