Volunteer Diana Henry and her pet therapy dog Grace
"In palliative care, everyone is so loving and the patients are so appreciative of being here so the whole floor is full of love. Pet therapy is one more nice thing that happens on a wonderful floor.”
By Devon Phillips. For Diana Henry, bringing her Golden Retriever to the palliative care unit at the MUHC means bringing joy and comfort to many patients and their loved ones. Diana claims that her role is to facilitate the work of her very talented and mellow pet therapy dog, Grace, who seems to intuitively know exactly how to soothe those in need.
Q: How long have you and Grace been coming to the palliative care unit?
A: Grace started coming here before me. My husband, Manny Borod, a palliative care physician, brought in Grace as a puppy to work with him especially on the weekends when there weren’t many people around. Eventually Margrit Meyer, a retired veterinarian who runs the pet therapy program, “Pattes d’Amour” / “Paws to Love”, said, “Diana, why don’t you bring the dog in?” I had retired at that point, and I thought, “Well, why don’t I?” So, Grace came here first and then brought me with her. Of course, I had to take the palliative care volunteer training course first.
Q: So you took the palliative care training course. What about Grace, did she have any training?
A: She was tested by Margrit and by Patricia Cameron, a professional dog trainer and evaluator. They have an hour-long test in which they put the dog in different situations and then observe its reactions, including meeting people, meeting other dogs, meeting strangers, and tolerating noise. For example, they dropped a metal tray to see if the dog was going to startle at sudden noises or movements, basically trying to figure out if she had the right kind of character to do this. Grace passed the test with flying colours.
Q: How would you describe Grace’s temperament?
A: Completely laid back. She is a love and affection sponge. She prefers people to dogs so when we go to the dog park, she just goes up to the people, ignores the dogs, and leans against the people. She likes to be petted, but if you stop petting her, she’ll be fine, she will just fall asleep on your foot. She is so mellow. She doesn’t growl and if anything, she is maybe a little too submissive but that really only comes into play when she is around other dogs. She is definitely a people pleaser.
Q: What is it like taking Grace to visit people on the palliative care ward?
A: I was nervous at first because I hadn’t spent a lot of time on the ward. So the first day I went with Margrit and she said, “Just stand behind me and I’ll hold the dog”, and it came so naturally. The next time I said to Margrit, “I think I can do this myself.” I realized that the dog was teaching me how to do it because Grace knew how to gently go up to the patient in the bed. Often if the patient’s hand is accessible, she will go and lick their hand super gently and just stay by the bed. I was little nervous about what kind of conversation I should make, but I found that all those worries went away because as soon as the dog entered the room, the focus was on her. I had a little bit of a light bulb moment when I realized it’s not about me, it’s about the dog and then I became completely comfortable and relaxed. I feel so confident when I am with Grace because she always knows what to do. She is just perfect. Grace adapts well to new people and new situations.
Q: It sounds like you are facilitating her work.
A: Yes! It’s Grace who is doing the work. Sometimes she needs a little guidance when there are patients who are very sleepy and hardly moving and I know from a family member who is in the room that the patient would really like to pet the dog. What I do in that case is I lift her paws up and put them on the edge of the bed and then move the patient’s hand to touch her head, and the patient will start to pet her head.
We had one patient at the Montreal General Hospital who asked if there was any way that the dog could get up on the bed with her. I checked with the nurses and they said, “If the patient wants this, then it’s fine.” This was a patient who was very young, in her 20s. So anyway, I lifted Grace up and she and the dog just lay on the bed together. Grace just cuddled right into her.
Q: What do you think the dog brings to a person at the end of life?
A: Two things. She brings diversion to the family ̶ she gives them a break from this intensely sad situation that they are so focused on. And often there are kids too and they know it’s serious and they are being told to be quiet and then all of a sudden there is a dog. We get the kids to come out of the room and the dog and the kids get down on the ground and they play together. And dogs comfort people. I see very sad family members holding her and being soothed by her. And she is soothing to patients.
You also have to remember there are a lot of patients who have left a pet behind at home and they know they will never see them again. So it’s a sentimental thing too. People love to talk about dogs they have had in their lives. When people talk about their dogs, their eyes come alive, so it’s a conversation in itself that is so separate from what is going on in the environment. So it’s escapism, a diversion, sometimes for 30 seconds, sometimes 30 minutes.
Q: Do you walk around the ward with Grace on a leash? Who decides where she goes?
A: I try to evaluate ahead of time who wants to see Grace ̶ the family member? The patient? Often the patient is asleep. It can be a very nice thing for the family member because they are just sitting and waiting. But I always hold her tight on her leash because she can get distracted by food! There is a lot of food in patients’ rooms and crumbs on the floor and her sense of smell is just amazing. Grace is always hopeful that there will be food! So yes I have to hold her tight and I guide her to the room and once we get there, I slacken the leash and let her go to the person.
Q: How often do you and Grace visit the palliative care unit?
A: I come once a week for about an hour but it depends. It can be shorter if people are sleeping; I never wake people up or disturb them. Sometimes we stay for the full hour if people say, “Come in and sit down, let the dog stay.” They want to talk about my dog, and about their dog. I never know how long I will be here from week to week but I always block the hour off.
Not everyone wants a visit from a dog. And this does not disappoint me or make me sad. It could be cultural as some cultures don’t really like dogs very much. Sometimes people are afraid. Pet therapy is a service we offer and if it is refused, I never take it personally.
Q: What do you think Gracie thinks about all this? If she could talk, what would she be saying about visiting people in palliative care?
A: I get the feeling when I am here with her that it brings out her compassion ̶ it’s compassion mixed with her love of attention and it’s just the perfect mix. She goes to people and she stays with them as long as they pet her, and when they stop petting her, she moves away. As far as the patient is concerned, that’s perfect because they get so tired so quickly so then it’s up to me to evaluate what I think the patient or the family member wants.
Q: What kind of reactions have you had from patients?
A: Mostly, great joy. Most patients are just so happy to see a dog. Sometimes they are surprised because they don’t expect to see a dog in a hospital. Even if the patient can no longer speak, there is a husband who will say, “Oh my wife loves dogs. We have had so many dogs in our lives. She will love to have a visit with a dog.” It’s not just the patient who is reacting, it’s the family members as well. So the response is very encouraging. Family members often see a visit from a dog as a lovely treat for their mother, brother, father, sister, child.
Q: And do patients like to feel the dog?
A: Oh yes. Mostly I place their hands next to her ears because the fur on her ears is so soft, like cashmere. And Grace likes having her ears rubbed. We talk about how soft her fur is. Often there is not a great deal of conversation, especially if the person speaks a language other than French or English, or if they can’t talk anymore, or if they are not lucid. So we try to make it tactile and we keep it fairly short.
Q: Any advice for someone interested in pet therapy?
A: They should contact Margrit Meyer through the volunteer department at the Montreal General Hospital. Things they have to think about include that the dog has to be at least one year old, the dog cannot be unpredictable at all or it won’t past the test, and the owner of the dog must take the palliative care course if they want to work on the palliative care ward. This is a great course for anyone to take.
Q: Is this work rewarding?
A: I highly recommend this work because it is amazing. We fall in love with the patients and with this love comes sadness when they go, but what I see here above anything else is love and compassion. Look at all the things we offer ̶ music therapy, pet therapy, psychologists. People are so appreciative; they thank me all the time for bringing my dog. The palliative care ward is magic.