Tail-wagging visitors soothe patients at Scarborough hospice

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SCARBOROUGH — Most dog owners can wax poetic about the joys of having a canine companion.

But many studies have also shown that petting or cuddling with a dog, in particular, also has significant health benefits.

That’s why the Gosnell Memorial Hospice House at 11 Hunnewell Road has launched a dog visitation program for its patients and their families.

“Hospice care is all about making the most of the time we have when dealing with end of life,” said Daryl Cady, president of Hospice of Southern Maine, which operates Gosnell. “For our patients at Gosnell, connecting with trained therapy dogs can help normalize and reduce the anxiety of being away from home.”

Such programs “can help reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, lower heart rate and reduce depression,” the organization said in a press release announcing the dog visitation program it’s calling PawPrints.

Kristin Melville, director of development and outreach at Hospice of Southern Maine, said the organization’s leadership “felt strongly about introducing this type of programming for patients and families. Pets have a longstanding history of providing faithful companionship and showing unconditional love.

“This companionship and love creates a powerful emotional bond between animal and human. The bonds that humans share with pets result in very positive effects, such as reduced anxiety and stress, increased feelings of relaxation and an overall improved outlook on life.”

Nan Butterfield of Yarmouth and her 8-year-old black lab, Sophie, is one of three teams of handlers taking part in PawPrints with their trained therapy dogs.

Butterfield has a personal connection with Gosnell, because that’s where her partner of 22 years died last year.

Butterfield was already a longtime hospice volunteer and Sophie was already a certified therapy dog, so the two seemed a perfect fit for the new dog visitation program at the 18-bed facility.

Butterfield and Sophie made their first official visit last week. Butterfield said there were several patients who asked especially to see Sophie and to have a chance to pat her.

She said one of those patients was recently diagnosed as terminally ill and was forced to give away her dogs. Seeing Sophie made that woman’s day, Butterfield said.

Sophie is a particularly good therapy dog because she is not overly large – she weighs in at about 48 pounds – and is “likes to be around people and to be petted,” Butterfield said.

“Dogs are very intuitive and on our first visit with the patients Sophie did very well and knew she was welcome. Seeing Sophie cheers the patients up and provides a pleasant interlude during some very difficult days,” she said.

The faces of the patients Sophie visited with last week “just lit up” at the sight of her and the chance to pat her at their bedside, Butterfield said.

The idea for PawPrints originated with Kellie Patti, the volunteer services manager at Hospice of Southern Maine.

“We are dedicated to finding ways to enhance the care we provide our patients and families,” Patti said. “We know from experience that patients’ pets have been a large part of their lives. Providing this opportunity is another way we can enrich the lives of those in our care.”

Patti, who has years of experience with therapy dog programs, also said that the dogs “are just there to let you enjoy them, they bring smiles, provide joy and comfort. Studies have shown visits with and petting dogs reduces anxiety, stress and a sense of loneliness. The visits not only bring joy to our patients and families, but our employees, too.”

To become a PawPrints volunteer takes a significant time commitment, both on by the handler and the dog. The handler must go through a 30-hour training, specific to hospice care, and the dog must both pass a canine good citizen test and be certified as a therapy dog.

To pass the canine citizen test, Butterfield said, a dog must show that it is obedient, not easily distracted and well-behaved. In addition, to get Sophie certified, Butterfield and her dog had to perform four to six visits at hospitals, nursing homes and the like to show how Sophie would interact with patients and staff and how she would do with all the medical equipment.

While becoming a part of the PawPrints program involves a serious commitment, Patti said that it’s also possible for patients at Gosnell Memorial Hospice House to have their own pets brought in for a visit, as well.

“Many families do bring in a patient’s beloved pet to visit,” she said. “(But) patient families must sign a release and follow (certain) guidelines.”

Hospice of Southern Maine was founded in 2001 with a mission of providing compassion, care, and comfort through the end of life. Today, the nonprofit cares for more than 1,500 patients annually, either at home, a care facility or at the Gosnell House.

Nan Butterfield and her dog, Sophie, are the first team to become a part of the new PawPrints dog visitation program at the Gosnell Hospice House in Scarborough.

Sophie, a certified therapy dog, brings joy to patients at the Gosnell Hospice House in Scarborough.

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