BY: Kevin Rottweiler
(after 10 years of nursing home work) in an assisted living facility that had Alzheimer’s care. The director knew I was working with animals and asked that I bring in a few “dogs.” SO, I was on my way– bringing in Pit Bulls, German Shepherds, Huskies, Jack Russells, Labradors, Mixed Breeds, Boxers, Poodles, and many breeds and lap dogs; all from the shelter! This article reveals the good and bad about pet therapy in elder care facilities.
Before I started pet therapy, I told the director I was not a pet therapy “professional” and these were not “service dogs” and there could be some danger, but I was accepted and they wanted the dogs in there. My length of “pet visits” or “pet therapy” lasted 2 years, including a 1 year stint at an elder retirement community. There are mixed blessings in bringing animals into these facilities as you will discover.
In the Alzheimer’s facility, the residents were not in the late stages of the disease and the memory problems were minimal as far as I could tell. Many could remember my name and asked when I was coming back to visit. The people were very nice and the staff very professional, one of the finest luxury facilities I have seen.
I began bringing in the dogs: big dogs, little dogs and medium sized dogs, lap dogs, cheerful dogs, sad dogs, all kinds of dogs. Many were too big to sit on their laps, but sat on their rear ends and wagged their tails, waiting for a biscuit. I always let the residents feed the dogs and showed them how to do it. I would hold my hand flat, so they would eat out of my hand, and not bite their fingers. My group lasted about an hour, with several one-one room visits. I also took the dog(s) outside to poop and let them run a short distance, and the residents would watch or come outside, in all weather conditions. It was a shiny success!
It was a big job putting the small dogs on the resident’s laps. After 5 to 10 times, going up and down, you get tired, but it is worth the effort– with the smiling faces and dog kisses I witnessed. Many of the residents had been past cat or dog owners, and just loved the friendly dogs on their laps. They even had ideas of purchasing a dog for a mascot at the facility.
So far so good, until PROBLEMS AROSE. Most common, a dog would poop or urinate on the floor and housekeeping would have to be notified. Nobody really complained and I got through the embarrassment of the situation. Some of the shelter dogs were nervous and pooped a few times, so I had my hands full. But they were very cooperative at the facility and never complained.
Once, a dog urinated on a resident bed and the resident refused any more room visits. She did however, ask I bring the dog to the door “just for a minute.” In addition, dogs scared a few residents due to their size (Labrador, Husky) and so I had to get used to that. When doing “pet therapy” one has to adjust the visit to the situation. There is always a problem that will come up.
Also, I noticed that some dogs were terrified of wheelchairs in long hallways. A man or woman in a chair, looks pretty enormous and some of the dogs never saw a wheelchair before. It is a new experience for the dog(s). Some dogs trembled, others became submissive or tried to exit the facility in fear.
Further, the Alzheimer behavior may have scared the dogs and made them nervous. Constant pacing, loud verbal utterances, and sudden movements from a few residents– startled the dogs. In these kinds of care facilities, it is best to walk slow, talk slow and carry oneself quietly. On one occasion a resident slapped a dog in the face. So, you have to be ready for any change in behavior of the dog or resident. BUT overall, the experience was top notch and positive.
Some of the equipment I would bring in consisted of: bags for dog poop, dog biscuits, and a water dish when the dog(s) gets thirsty. I would dress in layers, if the weather was cold, because you really perspire in the elder care facility. Some residents have control over their thermostats and is very hot in there (even in the summer). In most instances, I had the dog crated in the car for safety, depending on the situation. They were always happy to get out and inside the building. I did let the dogs get used to the outside also, and they could smell the Canadian geese that hung around the building.
Much of my visitation consisted of dog visits, and reminiscing about the dogs they had. The residents could remember wonderful stories about their favorite pet, or growing up on a farm. We also talked about family and holidays, and the residents were very enthusiastic. On some visits there were musicians and we even had a Beagle that sung with the group, standing on his hind legs!
During my visits I offered the residents the “soap bottle” or antibacterial soap, so they could wash their hands after holding the dogs. SAFETY was of prime concern but there were minor injuries. I quit my pet therapy visits after a dog scratched a resident, and bruises are common if the dogs got hyper and jumped up. I am glad there were never any bites.
My philosophy was, “this is the real world” and you cannot shelter the elderly like little kids from dogs. The residents really wanted to engage with the dogs and hold them and kiss them. To shelter the dogs from the residents and act as though everything is a “sterile environment” is not realistic. Some of the nurses did not like my visits and said, “Get the dirty dog off the couch.” BUT I did the best I could do, with the time and energy I could provide. REMEMBER, I was not getting paid for this, and put many hours into this venture. Volunteers need respect, and “Thank-You” for coming encouragement.
In conclusion, I believe I made a difference in the lives of the animals and the people. I had quite a following and most enjoyed the dogs. If I could do it over again, I would say, it would be the same. You just have to be ready for unexpected behavior from dogs, the elderly and visitors. This is the real world and the elderly are real people, they need to see the real dogs!