Editor’s note: Home Sweet Home is a regular feature appearing in McKnight’s Home Care Daily. The story focuses on a heartwarming, entertaining or quirky happening affecting the world of home care. If you have a topic that might be worthy of the spotlight in Home Sweet Home, please email Diane Eastabrook at diane.eastabrook@mcknights.com.

In home care, having a support network is crucial. That consists of family members, friends and caregivers. It also may include pets. 

Stacy Groff, vice president of specialized services at Tidewell Hospice, of Sarasota, FL, and Ben Marcontonio, chief operating officer of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO), spoke about the benefits of therapy pets in home care. Both said that therapy dogs act as mood elevators and provide comfort for hospice patients. 

“I think if you would ask someone in the beginning of their day how they feel, you know, rate it on a scale of one to five, after interacting with the therapy animal, I think most would say it made their day a little better,” Groff said. “We do see that sometimes when people are petting the animal that their breathing relaxes.”

Marcantonio, who is also a board member for Pet Peace of Mind, of Salem, OR, echoed Groff’s sentiments. Prior to joining NHPCO, he served as president and CEO at Hospice of the Chesapeake, of Pasadena, MD, where there is an active pet therapy program. He recalled how a therapy dog helped a patient. 

“She would come into a room with our volunteer and the patient would just light up and feel a sense of connection with her that they didn’t realize they would experience,” Marcontonio said. 

Dogs can be especially helpful for those with Alzheimer’s or dementia who are not completely aware of their surroundings, Groff said. 

“A lot of what they do is provide an opportunity for reminiscence, something that sparks communication and memories,” Groff said. “It’s [also] a distraction. A lot of our patients are bed-bound [or] wheelchair bound which kind of limits the interaction that they get from other people, so [we can] facilitate conversation and distract them from [being] stuck in bed.”

Strong medicine 

Because of animals’ soothing presence, nearly every hospice has a pet certification program, according to Groff. Groff’s program has 70 therapy dogs, and covers four counties in Florida and serves about 1,200 patients. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many pet therapy programs were put on hold due to the need to limit contact with humans and animals. Now, with the pandemic’s end, the pets are starting to re-enter the home once again — with enforced washing and sanitizing policies, like cleaning dogs’ leashes and washing one’s hands, Groff pointed out.

“It’s added some barriers and made us do a few extra things, but we’re happy to actually have that service back for our patients,” Groff said.

Certification

As helpful as dogs can be, in order for therapy pets to be able to even come into people’s homes in the first place, a certification is required. Tidewell Hospice partners with The Bright & Beautiful Therapy Dogs Inc., a certification agency. 

“We don’t actually train the animals,” Groff explained. “We expect them to be well-behaved before they come to the program, but we will put them through the certification process if they say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this great dog. I just don’t have a certification for them yet.’”

Other accepted certificates include Therapy Dogs International or the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. 

“We like to make sure that the animals [are] certified and have liability coverage through the certifying agency. Even the best-behaved animal can accidentally scratch someone,” Groff said.

Part of the certification also includes a sign-off by a veterinarian to evaluate the animal’s behaviors and the ability to follow basic commands. Ensuring that the animals are comfortable and able to be around objects such as wheelchairs, walkers and medical waste, is also required. After the animals are certified, they are assigned patients.

At Hospice of the Chesapeake, Marcantonio worked with an organization called Dogwood SPCA or Dogwood Acres for certification. 

“They had a particular program that they could make sure pets were comfortable going into a range of different environments and be comfortable and calm [around] many types of people, and go through that extended training for those kinds of circumstances,” Marcantonio explained.

Dogs wanted?

While therapy animals provide many benefits, they may not be right for everyone. There are safety violations and other issues to consider before bringing them into people’s homes. Many tend to assume that everyone loves animals and will therefore welcome a fluffy therapy dog with open arms, but that isn’t the case. 

A fear of animals or having a pet that does not get along with other animals are factors that come into play. 

“We all love our pets, but not all of them are qualified to be therapy dogs,” Groff said. “We’re [very] careful in private homes [to] not get someone who asks for a therapy visit with a dog, and we find out that they’ve got a cat in the home who doesn’t particularly care for dogs.”

Groff added that it is Important to note the difference between therapy and service animals, because the two terms are often used interchangeably. The main difference? Therapy dogs offer comfort; service dogs provide special medical assistance.