Puppy Love: Animal visits to Delta Hospital bring love, healing
An elderly man hunched over in his wheelchair catches sight of the tiny, black matt of fur waddling along the hallway toward him and his eyes go wide.
He breaks into a smile and starts pushing his wheelchair forward eagerly. He reaches out, trying to touch the tiny Shih Tsu-Poodle mix, Mr. G, while struggling to find his voice. When he does, it sounds as though he hasn't spoken in a while.
"Beautiful," he manages, causing Mr. G's owner, Shirley Ross, to beam with pride.
The man strokes Mr. G's head as the dog is lifted onto his lap, and for a few moments he basks in the simple pleasure of petting a warm, furry body.
Mr. G is one of many dogs which visits Delta Hospital through the Pets and Friends organization, which allows volunteers bring their animal companions to hospitals and other institutions throughout the Lower Mainland in order to provide a therapeutic benefit to people.
Daphne Parker, assistant administrative coordinator for Pets and Friends, became involved as a volunteer with her Shih Tsu at an adult day centre five years ago in West Vancouver.
The people the dogs come into contact with are often suffering from some form of dementia, meaning they are sometimes agitated or might not even speak.
"When my little dog would come in they would often just gravitate towards him and sit and pet him and their level of agitation would drop significantly," says Parker.
"I've heard stories where a dog would come in and a person with dementia would begin to chat away quite animatedly, making a lot of sense."
That moment has moved many a family member to tears.
Some people are surprised to see a furry face in an institutional setting, and the unconditional love and tail-wagging draws them in.
There's a story at Delta hospital that one dog who visited somehow got lost in the shuffle of laps. When he was later found he was with a palliative patient, giving the person comfort in their last hours. The patient died the next day.
"I've heard from facility caregivers that if they have a resident cat, that cat will go to a resident that is about to pass on, and so it sort of alerts the staff. It's uncanny," says Parker.
Delta Hospital has more than just dogs that visit. There's a resident cat here, too, which enjoys going up to the dogs for a nose-to-nose introduction, or just lounging around the rabbit cage.
There are live birds, too, with a Budgerigar (budgie) and a Cockatiel. These animals all play a part in making the people in the hospital feel a little more human.
Mr. G nestles into the lap of Maxine Buckholz, a resident at Delta Hospital who had to get rid of her two beautiful Alaskan Malamutes when she moved in following the death of her husband.
"My dogs were a lot bigger than this," she says, as she reminisces about Yukon and Misty.
Misty was named because her eyes would often get wet like she was crying.
Shirley Ross says many of the residents who meet Mr. G or the other dogs will begin to think about their own pets, stirring up feelings and memories sometimes long buried.
Next, Mr. G is off to enjoy the company of resident Joyce Watson, who wheels away from the table to hold the dog. Ross feeds him doggy treats for being a good boy.
Asked what she likes about the dogs, Watson says it's nice to see the different breeds that come in every week.
"Outside the fact that they're friendly, they seem to enjoy the people here, too," she says.
While nobody can ask Mr. G what he thinks, he seems to relish the attention showered on him, his pink tongue occasionally darting out of his mouth to lick a hand or clean his shiny nose.
Charlene Dishaw, volunteer resources manager at Delta Hospital, says there are many community programs that use pet therapy for either cognitive or physical disabilities, and this program is one of them.
"The value of a pet visiting is astonishing. When I do an orientation with a new volunteer and their pet, it is wonderful to see patients who looked too ill to even open their eyes, suddenly perk up and eagerly want to pet and visit with the dogs."
All pets and volunteers are screened, both for behaviour and for health. There is always some potential for disease transmission, but Dishaw says health facilities mitigate that risk.
Fraser Health has a pet policy that recognizes pets as being an important part of health and well-being, explains Dishaw.
"And people interact with pets differently than they do with people. For some people they may not be responsive to other people talking to them but they're more responsive to a pet."
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Ladner resident Shirley Ross got Mr. G, her first dog, three and a half years ago. She describes him as being the "runt of the litter," but he's since grown into a role that fits his calm personality.
She was visiting the Delta Hospital gift shop just over a year ago, talking about her dog, when she learned about the Pets and Friends program. She went for screening to put Mr. G through a battery of tests and situations to make sure he was a good fit for the program. He passed with flying colours.
Ross and Mr. G have been visiting Delta Hospital every week since and the residents have come to love the little black fur ball.
"You can see in their eyes and hear in their voices how much they love him," says Ross.
Sometimes she'll take one of the residents and Mr. G for a ride together in a wheelchair.
"And he just loves it."
Mr. G just cheers people up. Even if you're having a bad day, he'll set things right, says Ross.
"He's very therapeutic for people. He puts them in a calm state."
As Mr. G trots down the corridor to leave the hospital, nurses and orderlies catch a glimpse and break into a big smile. One even stops and self-consciously holds out his hand, seemingly torn between his desire to pet the dog and the need to return to his busy work. He chooses the dog, for a few moments.
"He's not just for the patients, but staff as well," explains Ross. "Because not everyone's having a great day. Until they meet Mr. G."