September 09. 2018 11:06PM

Patients say of pet therapy: I was having a bad day and this made it so much better

New Hampshire Union Leader

Ella Olsen, 102, of Nashua, pets Bucky, a miniature horse at Aynsley Place in Nashua. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

As centenarians in hospice, June LeBlanc, 100, of Goffstown and Ella Olsen, 102 of Nashua receive compassionate attention from nurses, family members, and paid attendants — but nothing as calming and instantly therapeutic as 30-minute visits from Wolfie — a dog the size of a prehistoric wolf, and Bucky and Nutmeg — miniature horses the height and girth of prize-winning sheep.

“It’s something different,” says LeBlanc, who enjoys combing her fingers through Wolfie’s soft fur when he visits Bel-Air Nursing Home in Goffstown, triggering memories of growing up on her family’s chicken farm, where German shepherds protected thousands of birds.

Olsen strokes Nutmeg’s velvet muzzle; the pony-size equine gazes back through chestnut eyes. Olsen’s been up for five hours, waiting for the miniature horses to arrive at Aynsley Place, her assisted living facility in Nashua.

“Oh, this is a pretty one,” says Olsen, who has a breathing tube in one nostril and speaks in a hushed voice. “I grew up with horses. We had a farm for years.”

At a time when days are meted out in meals and medications, pet therapy visits from volunteers are welcome and essential relief.

Not only do patients derive joy, stimulation, and social interaction, the encounters bring medical benefits proven in decades of clinical trials: reduced pain and anxiety, and a normalization of heart rate and blood pressure — as well as a sense of being loved and needed at the end of life.

Almost 250 volunteer caregivers, companions and musicians from Home Health and Hospice in Merrimack, with perhaps the most varied hospice volunteer program in the state, provided nearly 8,555 hours of visits to hospice patients in their homes, nursing homes and at Community Hospice House in Merrimack in the year ending June 30 — and the 22 pet therapy teams are a key part.

Professional caregivers are increasingly hard to find nationwide, and nurses, assistants, and paid sitters tend to swelling numbers of elderly patients in New Hampshire. Volunteers are an unsung but critical army for delivering joy, compassion, friendship, and conversation to hospice patients who feel alone and frightened by strange sensations as their body systems slow and shut down.

“He creates a traffic jam wherever he goes,” says Heather Shields of Amherst, the human partner of Team Wolfie, which visits hospice patients at home and assisted living and skilled nursing facilities in southern New Hampshire. Volunteers who receive 33 hours of training in hospice work bring dogs that pass courses in obedience and good citizenship, and a weekend intensive course through Pet Partners, a national training and accrediting organization for therapy dogs and their handlers.

On the job, dog owners are used to being upstaged by furry diplomats, valentines, and divas who enjoy the attention as much as the patients. Some speak directly to Wolfie, oblivious to Shields’ presence, she says. It’s not uncommon for patients to say “I love you” and to call the giant dog by the name of a former pet.

“Even the ones that aren’t patients are so happy to see us,” says Elizabeth Cote of Nashua, a Home Health and Hospice volunteer since 2011, who visits patients with her golden retriever, Audrey. “It’s not just the patients, it’s the staff and the families” who spend silent time with loved ones who are often uncommunicative or asleep. For them, “It’s calming and soothing and gets them out of their thinking for a few minutes.”

Dogs are emotionally intelligent and intuitive and notice when someone needs comfort and support, according to pet therapy experts. Audrey quickly brought peace to a hospice patient who was anxiously struggling to breathe, restoring normal respiration as her agitation subsided, Cote says.

“Patients say, ‘I was having a bad day and this made it so much better,’” Cote says. “Quality of life at the end of life is really important, and this helps with that.”

At Bel-Air in Goffstown, patients with walkers and wheelchairs gather in hallways, entryways, and the dining hall to pat Wolfie, a regular visitor with a peaceful and sympathetic demeanor, part Siberian Husky, who remembers which rooms to visit and touches his cold nose to hands as he walks by. Like most experienced therapy canines, Wolfie recognizes which patients need his talents, and what level of interaction is appropriate; he lies quietly at LeBlanc’s feet, occasionally rolling over like a puppy so she can rub his tummy.

“I don’t know as I’ve ever seen such a pretty design on an animal,” says LeBlanc, admiring the colored fur on Wolfie’s back, and smiling wistfully.

“You’re helping someone find peace at this point in their life. There’s a sense of innocence and acceptance by the animal, who doesn’t care what you look like or that you’re lying down or in a wheelchair,” says Cote, who currently serves as board president for Home Health and Hospice.

‘That dog knows’

Courtney Brown, 28, of Barrington, a full-time student at UNH, carves out time weekly to bring Madi, her Labrador retriever-terrier mix, to hospice patients on the Seacoast, including some who are non-verbal or in dementia units. Her volunteering was prompted by bringing her adopted rescue dog to visit her grandmother in a nursing home; after kissing her hand, Madi turned to gaze at the dying patient on the other side of the privacy curtain.

“My grandmother said, “By Golly, Courtney, that dog knows!” Madi walked up next to all the oxygen equipment and stood there and let the lady rest her hand on her head,” Brown says. Now the duo volunteer regularly at Beacon Hospice in Portsmouth.

“In the final 24 hours, she’ll rest her head and gaze at the person and not move for a full half hour. It’s like my dog knows and she’s saying goodbye in her own way.”

Pet therapy is not new to mental health or treatment of physical illness. In Belgium during the middle ages, patients were rehabilitated in the company of pets. Interaction with animals was intrinsic to treatment of the mentally ill and homeless in Germany. The Ancient Greeks used equine therapy to boost the spirits of those with life-threatening or chronic health issues, and 17th-century physicians prescribed interaction with horses to improve mental and physical wellbeing.

Today, miniature horses help with hospice and dementia care, offering more than just a reassuring presence. “They smell like big horses,” says Tanya Prather, director of volunteer services at Home Health and Hospice in Merrimack. “If you smell them, you immediately have your horse memories.”

Kap Siddall of Dunstable, Mass., a volunteer through Home Health and Hospice, brings her miniature horse, Bucky, to private homes, nursing homes, group homes for the disabled, and Community Hospice House in Merrimack.

“Bucky goes to the bedside and lays his head on the bed next to someone who’s dying. He’ll stay there as long as he thinks they need something from him. You see a sweet smile come across their faces. Bucky’s really, really good at that period of time,” Siddall says. Eden movement

Today, the “Eden movement” integrates plants, animals, and children into the normal, therapeutic environment of assisted living communities. Those affiliated with Silverado Senior Care in Irvine, CA. include dogs, cats, and fish on site, as well as miniature horses, llamas, chinchillas, and occasionally baby kangaroos. The animals don’t have to be cute or cuddly to make a difference. A 2016 study published in the medical journal Gerontology found that elderly people given five caged crickets to care for became less depressed than a control group after eight weeks.

Pet therapy has proven effective in treating Sundowner’s Syndrome, the evening periods of confusion and agitation that plague Alzheimer’s sufferers. Even the presence of tropical fish tanks in dementia unit dining rooms has boosted patient interest in eating and interacting, according to research.

The pleasure is contagious for those who bring pets to patients.

“I love my dogs. When someone is enjoying them, it gives me great happiness,” says Elaine Hopkins of Wilton, a Home Health and Hospice volunteer who brings her cocker spaniel to visit seniors at the end of life. “She’s a very kindred spirit. She loves to be loved and give love. Autumn just snuggles in and gets patted. In a situation as grave as it is, it’s uplifting. They don’t even have to talk.”

Silver Linings is a continuing Union Leader/Sunday News report focusing on the issues of New Hampshire’s aging population and seeking out solutions. Union Leader reporter Roberta Baker would like to hear from readers about issues related to aging. She can be reached at or (603) 206-1514. See more at This series is funded through a grant from the Endowment for Health.