Volunteer Carole Hughes and her pet therapy dog Finegan
“When I looked in the room, I could see the dog and his owner were together, just looking at each other. There was no pain in the patient’s eyes, just connection.”
By Devon Phillips. Even though Carole’s Golden Retriever, Finegan, had a tough first few years before he was rescued, Carole could see that Finegan’s calm and gentle disposition meant he would make an excellent pet therapy dog. For the last three years, patients and family members on the palliative care ward have enjoyed the weekly visits from Carole and Finegan.
Q: Let’s begin at the beginning. How did you and Finegan come to know each other?
A: Finegan is a rescue dog. A friend of mine found Finegan in a cage on Nun’s Island; he had been in the cage for two years. So my friend took him home, threw away the cage and said, “Finegan, you will never be in a cage again.” My friend had Finegan for two years and he would come by the house with him so he could play with my little pug Mugsy. Then one day my friend seemed depressed and said, “Can you take Finegan?” So that was how Fin became mine. He is a Golden Retriever. We don’t know his age for sure but we think he’d be about six now because he’s been with me for three years.
Q: What made you think that Finegan would be a good therapy dog?
A: I just knew from his behavior after a few months. He is so quiet, so obedient, I think he might have been abused because if I come forward to him with a loud voice, he will back up and drop his head. If I call him, he comes right away. When he sees me he will come galloping over like a pony. When I take him off the leash if we are out, he will sit and wait at the curb until I say it’s okay to come.
Q: Is training required to be a pet therapist?
A: Dogs are assessed at the Montreal General Hospital by two ladies who know dogs, Margrit Meyer and Pat Cameron. Pat trains and evaluates dogs professionally. So Finegan underwent a specific test which included being taken through hospital hallways and down where there is food and where there is a lot of noise, the kitchen, to see if he could handle noise and food. Finegan just ignored all this so he passed with flying colours. You don’t want a dog who smells food and then takes off, or a dog who jumps to high heaven when they hear a noise. He never went to dog obedience school; it is his character to be calm and obedient. Fin never growls, never barks. I think that retrievers have a reputation for being gentle Jims.
Q: Do you have any special memories of Finegan on the palliative care ward?
A: My first day alone with Fin on the ward, I walked into a gentleman’s room and he said, “Could you bring the dog a little closer because I would like to pat his head.” So I said, “Come on Fin” but Fin jumped into bed with this man! Oh no! So I said, “Fin you get down now,” but the man said, “No it’s okay, you can leave him.” Fin loves beds!
A year later I was visiting the ward with Fin. We went into a room and there was a gentleman out of bed sitting in a chair and his wife said, “Ah le beau chien!” This gentleman was patting his head and Fin just sat there, regal, and then I left because this gentleman was going home for the weekend. So I said, “You have a good weekend now,” and I walked Fin to the room where the volunteers collect and the nurse came to get me to tell me that the man in room 10 wanted to see me. I said that I just been there. So when I went back, the man gave me five dollars. And I said, “No, we don’t take money. We do this just to make you happy.” But he insisted, so we took the five dollars and spent it on cookies for the other dogs. That was the day Fin got a tip! So that’s Fin’s claim to fame.
Q: Does Fin interact with everyone or does he zero in on the patient?
A: I lead him to the patient. I do not let him loose but if I did, I think he would stop at the first person who would pat his head.
Q: How often do you visit with Finegan and for how long?
A: Once a week and the length of time depends. The dogs get tired quite quickly. Maybe I’ll do two rooms at a time, then take a break. There are those who like dogs and those who don’t, so you say, “Excuse me, would you like a little visit with a four-legged friend?” Nine times out of 10, they want to pat the dog’s head. The dog is on the unit for about two hours, and some of the time lies on the floor. He loves every minute of the caressing that he gets. That’s the type of dog he is! He doesn’t mind the attention at all and he is a hard worker.
Q: Have you always had an affinity for dogs?
A: Yes, my whole life. What I like about dogs is their innocence. You look into a dog’s eyes and you see the unconditional love. I have always had a dog. I still have my pug Mugsy and even though he is diabetic and blind, he has adapted very well. Mugsy took to Fin immediately. They are excellent friends. If they are close to the sofa, it’s a race to see who will get up first. They are competitive and they are funny and I’d be so lonely without them.
Q; Why do you do pet therapy?
A: I want to give back. If bringing my dog here makes someone happy, why not?
Q: Had you heard about pet therapy before? How did you find out about it?
A: I always knew about pet therapy but I associated it more with children than the dying to tell you the truth. But when I returned to volunteering in palliative care, I was walking through the lobby of the Montreal General and I saw dogs and right away I thought of pet therapy. So I was given the name of Margrit Meyer and I called and said, “I have a dog you might be interested in.” That’s how Fin and I got started.
Q: What do you think the benefits are for the patients?
A: I think it conjures up fond memories of a loved dog to patients, and the feel of the fur is comforting because it’s warm. Patients often cannot speak but they will stare calmly at the dog. People want the connection with animals. I have people run after me asking me to bring Fin to see their mother or father or husband. It’s not just the patients but it’s the families who appreciate the dogs.
They say that the patting motion is very soothing. I have only done pet therapy on the palliative care unit but I think people on a geriatrics ward would enjoy this because they could talk to the dog. And I think pet therapy would be good for the people on the psychiatric ward.
I remember Dr. Balfour Mount coming in on a Sunday at the Vic with his Westie and he’d let that dog race through the hallway and that dog knew which patients had cookies! He’d beeline for those rooms.
Palliative care has changed. In the last few years, patients stay at home much longer than before so when they get here, they are very sick and less able to interact. But from my experience here, many patients and their families do enjoy having a visit by a dog. And for those who really like animals, they will ask the sons or the daughters to go and get the dog. But there are cultural differences ̶ some cultures are not animal lovers so you have to be sensitive to that. Other people like other kinds of animals. I remember there was a lady in palliative care and her room was full of birds. I don’t know how many bird cages she had, but she would get up and take care of her birds.
Q: If Finegan could speak, what do you think he would say about visiting the palliative care unit?
A: I think he would say, “Okay we are going again, but don’t stay too long!” He’s a people person, that’s for sure ̶ he is half dog, half human, and he is always happy to meet someone new.
Q: What’s it like after he has been on the ward? Can he tell you when he is tired?
A: He speaks to me with his eyes and if he is tired, he will lie down. I find he gets tired quite fast and when he needs to stop, he just lies down for a bit. And when we get home, I open the gate and he gallops in like a pony and then he waits for his supper. He sleeps on my bed.
Q: Does Finegan sleep with his head on your pillow?
A: (Gales of laughter!) Now that my pug is blind and he can’t get up on the bed, I pick him up and then he heads straight for the pillow. In the meantime, Fin has jumped up and placed his head on the pillow first! I’ll say to Fin, “For God’s sake Fin, will you give him some room?” So he’ll get up and turn around. They both want the pillow! Fin and Mugsy are the biggest buddies ever.
Q: Words of wisdom for anyone thinking about doing pet therapy with palliative care patients?
A: You have to be comfortable with death and dying. I don’t think that death and dying bothers animals; they don’t see it through the eyes of a human. It’s true that dogs are very aware of when things are not right, but I don’t think they perceive death.
Dogs give so much to people. One Sunday I was told to secure the elevator for a visitor to palliative care and I found out the visitor was a Newfoundland dog, and that dog flew out of that elevator and directly into the right room where his owner was. His name was Izzie. I grabbed a bowl of water for him and when I looked in the room, I could see the dog and his owner were together, just looking at each other. There was no pain in the patient’s eyes, just connection. Later I was at a medical seminar and they asked, “Have you ever seen anybody without pain?” I put my hand up and I said, “Yes, when the owner looked at his dog.” That was Izzie and his owner, there was no pain and you could see it, you could feel it.