Hospice help on four legs: Demand for pet therapy is high, St. Luke's coordinator says
Larry Kubiak paused respectfully before touching the dog sitting at his feet. "Does she like to be petted?" he asked Mary Millard, who was kneeling close to his chair and next to her Portuguese water dog, Star. "She likes to be petted," Millard r...
Larry Kubiak paused respectfully before touching the dog sitting at his feet.
"Does she like to be petted?" he asked Mary Millard, who was kneeling close to his chair and next to her Portuguese water dog, Star.
"She likes to be petted," Millard responded. "That's her job."
Indeed, Star, and Millard's older dog of the same breed, Skipper, serve as therapy dogs in a variety of situations, including being cuddled by far-from-home university students.
On this afternoon last week, Millard and Star were visiting Kubiak in his sunlit room at Chris Jensen Health and Rehabilitation Center. Energetic and gregarious, Kubiak nonetheless must be on oxygen almost all the time, and generally uses a wheelchair to get around.
At 76, Kubiak has reached his twilight. He suffers from mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer that attacks the lining of the lungs and other organs, and he is a hospice patient via St. Luke's hospital.
"I'm hoping that the good Lord will keep me around until probably July, August, September," Kubiak said, philosophically. "I don't know when."
Hospice care, which emphasizes preserving quality of life rather than fighting the disease, is available for patients expected to live no more than six months, said Kelly Zapp, hospice volunteer coordinator for St. Luke's. Many such patients find that contact with pets enhances their quality of life, she said.
"Not only does it give help and support to the patient, but it gives that to the family as well," Zapp said. "They hear stories that their loved ones never told. Or they see their loved ones having a big smile on their face just because a dog entered the room."
More dogs coming?
But the numbers have dwindled recently. At any given time, St. Luke's has about 70 hospice patients spread out in various places, Zapp said. Generally, around four out of five request pet therapy.
Not long ago, St. Luke's could call on 15 dogs for hospice therapy, she said. One of the dogs was placed on hospice itself. Her own dog, a terrier, had to retire as a therapy dog because of ill health.
She's down to Millard's two dogs plus six more, each with one human apiece.
Even 15 dogs wasn't really enough.
"Optimally, it would be more than that," Zapp said. "Demand for pet therapy is high. I mean, who doesn't love having a dog come for a visit?"
For patients who request it, Zapp tries to schedule pet therapy visits at least once every week, she said. She'd like to be able to offer it twice weekly.
More may be coming soon. Nine dogs are lined up for an "assessment" on April 19 to see if they would work as pet therapy hospice dogs, Zapp said.
It's more likely to work than not. Think of any dog, and you're thinking of a potential pet therapy dog, Zapp said, including some from breeds that might seem counterintuitive.
"We have a Great Pyrenees coming in to do assessments," she said. "We have a Great Dane coming in."
Pit bulls, rottweilers and Dobermans all can be good therapy dogs, Zapp said. It all depends on how they've been raised.
Millard told of a Rottweiler that serves as a therapy dog at Miller-Dwan. "If you think about what people think about Rottweilers, and yet this is just a gentle soul," Millard said.
The only real key, Zapp said, is that the dog be well-mannered and "four on the floor" - no jumping up or even putting a paw up.
"You can't count any dog out," she said.
But special training might be needed for a breed such as a Great Pyrenees, which naturally places an affectionate or attention-getting paw on a human, Zapp said.
For her Portuguese water dogs, which have a natural tendency to forge ahead, Millard purchased special collars that keep them from doing so.
Dogs are capable of altering their dispositions when there's work to be done, Zapp said. Her terrier is high-spirited outside, a "menace," she said jokingly. "We walked through the door and he just - head up, held high, his chest would puff out, tail up," Zapp recounted. "Like, 'I've got this, who are we going to see today?'"
'It opens me up'
Star had light work on this particular day. After scratching the dog's head, Kubiak engaged in conversation with the other people in the room. The Duluth native told of his past experiences. In the US Navy, he was on the crew that put the USS Enterprise, the world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, into commission. After two years at what then was Duluth Technical College, he worked as a journeyman machinist for Minnesota Power.
As the talk continued, the dog quickly settled in at Kubiak's feet, her attention mostly focused on Millard.
It's a familiar scenario for Millard and her Portuguese water dogs - the same breed that was represented in the Obama White House. Millard, 70, is the most frequently available of the therapy dog owners who volunteer with St. Luke's, Zapp said.
A widow for 11 years, Millard said volunteering with her dogs works well for her.
"It opens me up to a lot of different people," she said. "Which, when you're a widow, that's just a great thing for me as well."
Zapp works with 66 hospice volunteers, all told. Among other things, volunteers can provide respite for a patient's family members when they need a break, make one-on-one visits and provide music therapy. There are special roles for military veterans who would spend time with other veterans who are hospice patients, and for 11th-hour volunteers, who make sure nobody dies alone.
Zapp, who has a bachelor's degree in hospital administration, has worked at St. Luke's for 11 years, the last two as hospice volunteer coordinator. She said she loves the role.
"The one thing I always say is, I get to go to work working with people that want to work," Zapp said. "Our volunteers work for free."
Having served as a pet therapy hospice volunteer herself, Zapp knows what drives the experience.
"It's only for the satisfaction of their own hearts that they do it," she said. "The amount of joy that you can have from doing a visit, even though it might be only 20 minutes, is the best thing in the world."
To learn more
Anyone interested in learning more about the hospice volunteer program at St. Luke's can contact Kelly Zapp at (218) 249-6105 or email@example.com .