Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Volunteering With Kacy

Kacy in her volunteer uniform
I have discovered a new passion: volunteering with my little Norwich Terrier, Kacy. I've always considered her therapeutic, because her raison d'etre, besides eating, is cuddling with humans. She craves contact with people in ways I've never seen in a dog.

I first heard about P.A.L. (People. Animals. Love.) from my primary care doctor a few years ago. It sounded interesting, but Kacy was too pugnacious with other dogs in her youth. When it became evident to the hospice organization I'm volunteering with how obsessed I am with Kacy, they asked me if I would consider having her certified by P.A.L. so she could accompany me on hospice visits. She is a senior lady now (nine and a half years old), and has chilled out considerably, so we decided to give it a try. P.A.L. is not a therapy animal organization, so they have a more attainable standard for their pet volunteers. Kacy had to go on an orientation where she demonstrated her sociability and her ability to respond to basic commands like sit, stay, come, and heel. Of course, we had to provide records showing she was current with her vaccinations. We then had to go on two evaluation visits, which are real visits with other established P.A.L. volunteers. The team leader watched how we each handled ourselves and had to sign off on a form saying we were a good fit for this type of work. Luckily, Kacy and I passed. We did both of our evaluation visits at a nursing home in our city, where we continue to volunteer. You'll notice Kacy wearing her P.A.L. bandanna in the photo. When we volunteer with P.A.L., other dogs and their handlers are there, and we are building a rapport with some of the other regulars, including Romeo, the amazing skateboarding Sheltie.

Sunday was our third visit with P.A.L. to the nursing home, and we are starting to build relationships with the residents who remember us. There is a charming woman who loves dogs of all sizes. Another 98 year old resident always proudly tells me her mother was a nurse for President Roosevelt, and that she herself worked for the federal government for 40 years. There are also non-verbal residents who also respond to the dog. If you've never seen this happen, it's amazing: people who otherwise don't respond very well can get "woken up" by interacting with an animal. Nowhere have I seen this more dramatically than I did when I volunteered at a nursing home with my Westie, Arthur, in high school. There was a woman who had a massive stroke who lay catatonic in her bed except when we put Arthur in it. Then, she would start to moan with pleasure and stroke him. The nursing staff would gather around to watch this because it was literally the only time this resident interacted with anything. I guess animals touch some deep place in our brains. At this nursing home, there are residents who don't speak but stop to pet the dogs. There are others who can't speak clearly anymore, but clearly enjoy cuddling Kacy on their laps.

The point of this work is not to have people make a fuss over the dog per se: Kacy is the bridge between me and other people. She opens up doors that I can't open by myself. Another example of this is our literacy work with kids. We went to the local library last week to let children practice their reading with dogs. There is a trend to use pets to help in this capacity, because many kids feel judged when they read to people; not so when they read to dogs. It really warmed my heart to have a 12 year-old (reading at a much lower level) read aloud to Kacy. It would not have appealed to her to read aloud to me, but she was keenly interested in snuggling with and engaging with the dog.

This has done wonders for my relationship with my little dog. I always enjoy her company, but it has reinvigorated our relationship to do this service work together. Once fearful of the car, now when I announce that we're getting in it, she darts down the stairs. I love seeing how she brings people out of their shells, and I just enjoy doing things with her. I am eager to see how Kacy does on our first joint hospice visit tomorrow. 

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