Handbook for Volunteers

Handbook for Pet Visits
[Prepared by John Hallinan, former volunteer. Edited and published by Neal Jennings]
Canis Familiaris has been MAN’S BEST FRIEND and companion for several thousand years. Only a horse, possibly because of its ability to help carry man’s load, is a distant second. Why does it feel so great to have that wet nose against your hand; that comforting presence when you are ill; that never questioning support when others are absent — in short, a dog’s love! This mysterious relationship has become the cornerstone of our program, PETS ON WHEELS OF SCOTTSDALE, INC. (POW). Here we share our dog’s love for people with residents and patients in Scottsdale’s care centers — with weekly visits to 1,600 individuals, including 100 hospice patients. Cats and other animals are also used for pet therapy.
For some time it has been widely recognized by health-care professionals that patients’ psychological as well as their physiological needs must be addressed. Pet-facilitated therapy has emerged as an ideal, cost-effective approach to alleviate the emotional needs of care center residents and patients. Volunteer-pet teams, such as those in POW, have demonstrated repeatedly to be the best overall approach to help satisfy care-center patients’ emotional needs.

Very few people can resist an adorable, mop-shaped ball of fur heading their way. We automatically respond to the natural charisma and beauty of a golden, or a poodle. To most people, for that matter, any dog in their presence is so disarming as to make them want to reach out to pet it. In a care center environment, total strangers quickly become friends. People seem freer in relationships with animals, sharing a degree of intimacy rarely, if ever, shared with spouses, parents, or children. Pets may often be the “significant other” in a person’s life; confidants perceived as particularly sensitive to one’s personal moods and feelings. Dogs provide a continual access to an uncomplicated, affection-on-demand, yet very personal, relationship.

For many people, dogs have been a common pleasurable experience, to be recalled as enjoyable childhood memories. Animals can help break down communication barriers among residents, staff, volunteers, and other visitors. “I had a lab,” ” I love miniature poodles,” “My dog loved the water,” and similar comments can lead to a mental trip down memory lane that is reminiscent of better days. By being non-judgmental, non-threatening, and emotionally safe, a dog’s unconditional affection can help stimulate withdrawn residents and bring them out of their isolation.
To be successful, our program must be based upon more than a friendly dog interfacing with a lonely, elderly person. We must maximize our brief period of contact, doing all we can to insure the most productive and rewarding meeting for all concerned.

To maintain maximum effectiveness, regular visits are paramount. Resident anticipation of your team’s visit soon becomes high, as a break in their otherwise mundane routine. You are a light to the world they once knew but are now separated from, through no fault of their own. A specific hour for your visit is not generally necessary, unless the visit is a part of the care center’s activity schedule. In that case, it is important to maintain your schedule and to notify the activity director of any changes. In general, a specific day of the week can sometimes be set aside for your team’s visit, which will be eagerly anticipated by your “following” at the care center.
Your “scorecard” is a personal one, personally recorded and personally evaluated by your own criteria. Only YOU will know that warm personal feeling of accomplishment when you and your dog together make another human happy, because YOU wanted to, and for no other reason. It is important to remain positive towards your team’s performance. In mentally evaluating your team’s visits, remember both the positive and the negative events, as there surely will be both.
It is not necessary to contact 15 or 20 residents during every visit. One who opens up and wants to release 10 or 15 minutes of their life’s memories and accomplishments may well be more worthwhile than several brief contacts. Also, there may be some residents who will not be able to physically acknowledge your greeting, but they will remember your efforts.
A nursing home resident’s world is far different from any he or she has every known. Gone is most of the individual empathy, compassion, consideration, and appreciation, as well as some of their own former positive feelings towards other people. Their new, somewhat unfriendly world, means dependence, even total dependence in many cases, upon someone else for their everyday needs. A complete lifestyle change, not of their making, has left many devastated and bewildered. A formerly active CEO, who now must be helped with virtually every aspect of his life because of a stroke, or a well known Professor of English Literature at a leading university, who now has trouble remembering the smallest details of the past, are typical of the people we are trying to reach. We should endeavor to try to understand their hurt and their plight.

Unlike a patient at a rehabilitation hospital, who has a short-term stay, recuperates, and then goes home, a nursing home resident is generally long term, having suffered a stroke (or coronary related illness), Alzheimer’s, dementia, or one of a variety of age-related problems. Patients sometimes have a varying degree of depression, loneliness, frustration, and even a little aggressiveness, as well as a strong feeling of not being in control of their lives. One or more of these feelings can easily erupt, affecting everyone in their presence. If, by chance, you and your partner happen to be involved in such a situation, consider the circumstances, disregarding any personal involvement, and continue your visiting. Be slow to develop a close relationship with a nursing home resident when a terminal disease is involved.
It is helpful to be certain that residents are ready for your visits to their rooms. For various reasons, they may not feel up to having visitors at the moment. If you can see the resident while still in the hallway and he, or she, indicates you should come in, by all means do so. If they are not visible, announce yourself with, “My dog, Honey, is here to see you — would you like to see Honey?” In any event, do not impose, but try to make the timing of your visit favorable to the resident. Initially, introduce your partner and yourself and your interest in sharing your dog’s affection with them. A Hummel figure or a piece of Waterford crystal on display can spark a conversation, allowing the resident to relive a fond moment from the past. Pictures are always ideal conversation starters.
Coping with rejection is an integral part of everyday life, and a nursing home visit is no exception. Seldom will your team experience rejection, but be prepared. There is a very small minority of people who do not like dogs, but usually the sight of seeing other residents enjoying a dog has a very positive effect. They may have been bitten as a child, or raised to believe all dogs should be chained in the back yard.
Matching the size of your partner with the patient’s reach is very important. A small Shih Tzu standing a few inches above the floor will not be able to communicate very well with a resident in a 30-inch high bed or wheelchair. These little guys, and others of a like size, must be held by their owner in order to facilitate the magic of the greeting process. Many residents would like your dog placed on their lap, but you should decide, in each case, whether to hold your dog or place him, or her, on the resident’s lap. Small dogs may be placed on the patient’s bed, if all concerned consider it advisable. Wheelchair patients may hold small dogs on their lap at the owner’s discretion. Medium sized dogs (20-24 inches) are too short to stand along side of a bed to be petted. They also can be held for petting. We have been encouraged to train them to put their front paws on the knees of someone sitting, or on the side of the bed, on the cue, “Say hello!” Large sized dogs, such as Dobermans and golden retrievers, should be within arm’s reach at the bed of a patient who is bed-ridden, or at the side of a wheelchair. Either sized dog’s head may be cradled in the lap of a wheelchair patient for a more intimate contact. In all cases, be sure to retain your hold on the leash and move your grip toward the collar as necessary.
Puppies, especially of larger breeds, do not make the best candidates for our program, because of their size, sudden barking, efforts to play, excessive licking, chewing, or sharp nails. Early training is always a good idea, not just for obedience but for overall canine good citizenry, and should be undertaken as early as possible. Good canine citizenry includes walking under close control in a crowd or in a nursing home hallway, sitting politely while accepting attention from a stranger, conforming to “sit” and “stay” commands, having a favorable reaction to another dog, and most importantly, showing a love for humans — none the least is you.

With a few exceptions, virtually every adult breed of dog has been shown to be a successful pet therapy dog: mastiffs to toy poodles, long-coated Chihuahuas to Afghan hounds — pure-bred and designer dogs. Tricks are great, especially for groups of residents gathered in a hallway or day room — but a good, friendly tail wagger who will stand or sit to be petted is basic. All these dogs have brought untold joy into the lives of the elderly. The dog’s behavioral pattern can be changed somewhat through training, but its capacity for love cannot. In our program, the key ingredients are wagging tails and dedicated volunteers.
Allow your pet partner to be as demonstrative as it wishes, but observe the actions of each resident with regard to your dog’s safety and well being. On occasion, residents may make threatening gestures toward your partner without realizing the consequences of their actions. These are people who are not always in complete control of themselves for one reason or another. Most people attempt to return the love that your team has shown them. While a common occurrence, especially with well-loved smaller dogs, a sudden attack of kisses should be curtailed, unless readily accepted, in which case, just let nature take its course.
Make putting on the POW bandanna a pleasant ritual (even to the accompaniment of a treat), again to heighten your partner’s interest in the impending visit. Just before each visit, a last minute grooming touch up will insure your pet is putting its “best foot forward.” Regular bathing, especially if shedding could be a problem, along with a regular maintenance of teeth and ear cleaning, and nail trimming should always be practiced. An exercise (potty) stop just before going to the care center will help insure that no “pickups” will be necessary from the facility’s lawn. Be sure to keep Kleenex, paper towels, or a few baggies in the car for courteous removals, if needed.

If possible, take the same route to the care center each time, so your partner can become familiar with certain out of the ordinary “landmarks,” such as a uniquely-shaped building, large trees, maybe even a strange-looking fireplug. Hopefully, coupled with a few of your comments, your partner’s enthusiasm and anticipation of the upcoming visit will be enhanced. And remember, your partner’s attention span can vary, as well as yours. After about an hour into your visit, if your partner’s interest and response levels are less than normal, consider calling it a day, “a good day.”
A pet-visit record log is maintained at each care center visited by Pets on Wheels volunteers. This log is a white-faced, three-ring binder, containing pages listing pertinent data. Following each visit, record your name, that of your partner, time in and out, to the closest quarter hour, and the approximate number of meaningful contacts you had. This log book is located conveniently near the entrance of most facilities. Also, regular contact with as many of the care center’s staff members as possible will help insure the successful integration of our program. The activity director, in particular, should be kept abreast of your activities.

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AND SO . . .
The combination of the magical “silent communication” and the natural charisma of your dog, with YOUR personal desire to make someone’s life a little brighter, are what we are all about! July 2015 is our 25th year anniversary. By fall of 2015, we reached the 875,000th time a Pets on Wheels of Scottsdale volunteer has walked up to a resident, a patient, or a special child and said, “Hi! Would you like to see my dog?”

What you provide when visiting with your pet:

A bright spot in the day; just being there.

Warmth and affection — for everyone involved.

Laughter — with pet’s appearance or antics.

Recollection of pleasant memories.

Mental stimulation for Alzheimer’s patients.

Motivation for therapy after injury or surgery.

Reduction in blood pressure.

Distraction from depression.

Lessening of tension and stress.

Reduction in incidence of heart attacks.

Better chance of survival from heart attacks.

Speedier recovery from heart attacks.

Comfort during loss and while grieving.

You and Your Dog are Pets on Wheels.