Take a Moment to Paws and Reflect

arspilka April 1st, 2010, 1:35 PM
Abby R. Spilka, Hospice Volunteer
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Photo by Deirdre Nolan

Photo by Deirdre Nolan

I have often remarked that when a volunteer and a patient get together for the first time it can best be summed up as a cross between a blind date and a job interview. Imagine introducing another volunteer to this scenario – a four-legged furry one that possesses only non-verbal communication skills, the most important of which is a happily wagging tail.

I recently met a volunteer who has gone through VNSNY hospice training and training conducted by the Good Dog Foundation whose mission is to provide animal assisted therapy to help humans in need and enhance their quality of life. Deirdre (human volunteer) and Audrey (wirehaired daschund volunteer pictured above) did the training together, but as you can imagine, there are a lot of layers to the training. As Deirdre points out, “You’re taught to watch your dog for any signs of stress and fatigue. They didn’t make the decision to volunteer, you made it for them, so it is up to you to be sure they are happy in their work.” The dogs are trained using positive reinforcement and must get along with each other. Each dog is evaluated by a trainer from the Good Dog Foundation before it is accepted into the program.

While the dogs are learning to be patient and ultra-pettable, their human companions are introduced to different scenarios, like when a patient begins to talk about her own dog having died or the animals she has at home and likely will not see again.

Deirdre and Audrey have visited hospitals and nursing homes and shared some intense experiences. One woman they visited never spoke, but cried with happiness whenever she held Audrey. On one occasion one of her two daughters told Deirdre that their mother was an animal lover and always had pets at home. “I was glad Audrey could be her stand-in pet, even if only for a few minutes a week,” says Deirdre.

When I asked Deirdre why she chose the Good Dog Foundation, she was quite forthright in her answer. She had grown up with her elderly grandparents, and sickness and hospitals didn’t bother her, “But,” she said, “while I greatly admire people who can volunteer on their own, I needed Audrey to help me feel comfortable doing it.”

Of all the ways that volunteers can interact with patients, I think Deirdre and Audrey have chosen a very special path. Our experiences with patients can vary greatly, depending on how open we are, and how willing our patient is to let a stranger in. But to commit to go through both kinds of volunteer training speaks volumes, even if one member of the team cannot.

If you know someone who would benefit from Good Dog Visits, whether through VNSNY Hospice or through the foundation itself, http://www.thegooddogfoundation.org/, be in touch. And if you enjoy photos of really sweet dogs, I can guarantee that a visit to their website will be well worth it.

 Be well.


  • Great information! I’ve been looking for something like this for a while now. Thanks!

  • What a great resource!

  • So glad to hear about animals helping patients, especially during such a difficult time. Great info, Abby!

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