The Coastal Star

Paws Up for Pets: Paw Pal dogs aim to bring peace, joy to hospice patients

A VITAS patient enjoys an up close and personal visit from a Paw Pal dog.

Photo provided by VITAS Healthcare

By Arden Moore

    Some dogs are born agility stars blessed with athletic prowess to weave in and out among poles, dash up ramps and wiggle quickly through tunnels. Others earn respect for chasing down criminal suspects and detecting hidden caches of drugs as K-9 police officers. Some dogs live to shine in the spotlight at best of breed shows or dog obedience competitions.
    Then there are special dogs like Einstein and Dixie, a pair of basset hounds who waddle into a room and illuminate smiles and inner joy in people whose time left is counted in months, weeks or days.
    Einstein and Dixie are poster dogs for the Paw Pal program for VITAS Healthcare, a national hospice company that has a center in Boynton Beach. Their well-mannered temperaments and easygoing natures make them ideal to spend time with hospice patients and their families.
    And Palm Beach County needs more of such dogs.
    “A large population of elderly living here in assisted living or nursing facilities have had to give up their dogs prior to coming to these facilities, or have fond memories of their childhood dogs,” says Gayle Stevens, volunteer services manager of the VITAS volunteer program for Palm Beach County and a registered nurse. “Many of them or their families request for us to bring a dog to visit them. Our Paw Pal dogs often serve as a distraction from their illnesses and help people feel a little less lonely.”
    Interested? Does your dog possess the right qualities? The Paw Pal program seeks dogs who are healthy and current on vaccinations, well groomed, free of fleas and ticks, understand and obey basic obedience commands, and warm up easily and quickly to people of all ages in a variety of locations.  
    Dog owners must undergo background checks, agree to be fingerprinted and must be willing to volunteer with their dogs for a couple of hours a week. To learn more, visit www.vitas.com/hospice-care-services/paw-pals-pet-therapy or email Stevens at gayle.stevens@vitas.com.


Doggie duo brings joy
    Einstein and Dixie can be found most Tuesdays at assisted living facilities, hospitals and private homes sporting their official Paw Pal identification badges and eye-catching purple bandanas. They make their rounds with their owners, Nancy and Marty Cohen, a retired Lake Worth couple.
    For 25 years, Nancy Cohen saved lives as a paramedic and then a nurse. Now, joined by her husband, Einstein and Dixie, she is there for those nearing the end of their lives.
    “Einstein is definitely a clown who does his best to get people to engage with him,” Cohen says. “Dixie is calm and quiet. She has a way of getting people to pet her, and if they stop, she gently noses their hands to continue receiving pets.”
Cohen adopted the pair from a basset hound rescue group.
    During a recent home visit to see a man in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease, Nancy entered the living room to see the man in a recliner with his eyes closed. Quietly, the man’s wife let Nancy know that her husband had not responded to anything recently.
    “I gently placed Einstein on a footstool next to the recliner and placed the man’s hand on Einstein’s head and ears. He started to smile and his wife told me she could not remember the last time he had smiled,” Cohen recalls.
    During another home visit — this time to see a retired teacher with Parkinson’s disease — Dixie confidently walked up to the teacher to be petted and then boldly walked into her kitchen to take in scents of food.
    “The teacher was clearly amused by Dixie and seemed to know that with basset hounds, the nose is everything,” Cohen says. “Dixie has very soulful eyes and she quickly endears herself to everyone she meets.”
Stevens also expressed her appreciation for dogs like Leahla, a 5-year-old Shih Tzu-poodle mix belonging to Bonnie McKay of West Palm Beach, and Sarah, a beagle belonging to William Merkle of Boynton Beach.
    “Bonnie brought Leahla to see a woman with multiple sclerosis. The disease had progressed to the point that she could not move anything but her hands,” Stevens says. “Bonnie placed Leahla on a blanket on the bed and helped the woman position her hand so it could move up and down Leahla. She made the woman smile.”
    She continues, “We got an urgent call from a social worker for a patient with end-stage lung disease who desperately wanted a dog to visit him. In walks William with Sarah, and the man proclaimed, ‘Oh my gosh! I had a dream about a beagle visiting me. This is wonderful.’”
    Most patients whom Einstein visits are unaware that glaucoma has robbed this 12-year-old of sight in his right eye and that he can see only shadows in his left. They just notice that Einstein hangs closely to the right side of Cohen.
    “Einstein regards me as his safety net when we enter a new place or room, but he still enjoys performing tricks for the clients and their families,” she says. “As he was going blind, we taught him the map of our house, how to move forward, back up, step up, step down and slow down. He is a very good learner and definitely lives up to his name.”
    It is clear that Einstein has the right qualities to be a perfect Paw Pal ambassador.
    
Arden Moore, founder of FourLeggedLife.com, is an animal behavior consultant, editor, author, professional speaker and master certified pet first aid instructor. She hosts the popular Oh Behave! show on www.PetLifeRadio.com. Learn more by visiting www.fourleggedlife.com.

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