A Four-Legged Hospice Worker Eases the Suffering

Maggie the therapy dog offers unconditional love to all her patients

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HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, Nov. 5, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Maggie is the kind of health-care provider who seems too good to be true.

She's patient, listens attentively, makes house calls, doesn't shoo you away after seven minutes and even provides her services free of charge.

Maggie also wags her tail and smiles widely, no matter how many patients are waiting to see her.

As a therapy dog for the Metropolitan Hospice of Greater New York, this 12-year-old yellow Labrador has about 100 clients she's responsible for in New York City. Not all these people actually request Maggie's services, but, if they do, she is there.

Caring for the dying is a second career for Maggie. She had spent eight years as a seeing-eye dog. When her owner died, she was slated to be euthanized but was saved by Metropolitan's pastoral care coordinator, the Rev. Eric Towse.

Maggie, like many service dogs, didn't adjust well to retirement. She couldn't stand to be alone after Towse and his wife had adopted her. She even got her head stuck in the cat door trying to get out. After two years of uneasy coexistence, the Towses were at their wit's end. Then it hit Towse. "She could help me in my work," he said to himself.

Because Maggie was already trained to serve as a companion to the disabled, she only had to take a one-day "temperament test" to be certified as a hospice dog. This involved hanging out at a nursing home and letting the residents bump her with their walkers and pull her tail without losing her cool.

She started working at Metropolitan last spring.

What's her magic?

"She's stoic. She doesn't jump up or lick," Towse explained. "When the dog enters a room, a light just goes on. The patient takes over. Here's a person totally dependent on their family, maybe feeling guilty, and the dog is an object for affection."

Dr. David Taylor, Metropolitan's medical director, said, "Pets impact powerfully on some of the things in the emotional realm of suffering. Older people are not afraid of death, but they are afraid of loss of control and loss of dignity. Social isolation is a big problem. Undemanding attention goes a long way to breaking the spell of being stuck in a room and unable to go anywhere."

Maggie also prods some patients to share in her affection. "Sometimes a patient will get out of a chair and sit on the floor with the dog," Taylor said. "We generally don't think of hospice as saving lives, but maybe it is."

After taking two cookies directly from her master's mouth one recent afternoon, Maggie trotted down the hospice's green-carpeted hallway, tongue hanging out, tail wagging, her Metropolitan employee ID clanging against her dog tags.

Most of the patients at the hospice are learning about such issues as pain management and proper hydration, to allow them to return home to live out their remaining days.

One of the patients, a woman, had requested Maggie for a second time that day.

"Hi baby," she said as Maggie made a beeline for the bed. The woman gripped the bed railing with one frail hand so she could lean over and fondle Maggie's ears with her other hand. "Hey, you," she said.

Across the hall, Maggie brushed past Johnny Black's bare feet then moved to the side of the bed so he could pet her as well. "Whazzup?" asked Black, who has cancer of the bladder.

Asked what he thought of Maggie, Black said emphatically, "Beautiful!"

Soon, Towse pulled Maggie's leash, but assured Black she'd be back soon. "You make sure, right?" Black said, addressing Maggie directly.

"At hospice, we try to make nice," Towse said. "Maggie has the ability to do that in her own unique way. As long as she can't get ordained, I have job security."

But Maggie derives some big benefits from her patients, too. Her demeanor before and after starting the job is like "night and day," Towse said.

"Now she's able to stay at home longer with fewer incidents. She has the sense that somebody needs her. Her affect just changed. She feels more useful and sleeps more. She can relax," he said.

More information

To learn more about therapy dogs, visit Therapy Dogs International.

SOURCES: Rev. Eric R. Towse, pastoral care coordinator, Metropolitan Hospice of Greater New York, New York City; David Taylor, M.D., medical director, Metropolitan Hospice of Greater New York, New York City; Johnny Black; Photo of Maggie courtesy of Amanda Gardner

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