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Tammie Lanners and her dog, Woody, are volunteers with the Paws of Love Hospice of Douglas County Therapy Dog Program. They visit Cozette Fjordback, a hospice patient, once a week.

Dogs provide comfort, companionship to hospice patients

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Cozette Fjordback has a new friend. He's everything a person could ask for of a friend - he's warm, gentle, patient, caring, a good listener, and best of all, he visits regularly.

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He also gives lots of kisses.

Fjordback is a resident at Bethany Home in Alexandria. The 91-year-old has lung cancer and is currently receiving hospice care.

She receives comfort and companionship from her new friend - an 8-year-old Labrador named Woody.

Woody, a trained hospice therapy dog, has been coming to see Fjordback since February. The two hit it off instantly and have become the best of friends.

A NEW SERVICE

When Fjordback and her family requested hospice care, they were told of all the options that Hospice of Douglas County offered. One of those options was a new service - visits from a therapy dog.

The "Paws of Love" Hospice of Douglas County Therapy Dog Program provides comfort, support and animal companionship to hospice patients and their families.

All dogs accepted into the program are American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizens and are registered with Therapy Dogs Incorporated. They are tested on temperament, basic obedience and environmental challenges.

Therapy dog handlers are trained hospice volunteers.

There are currently six therapy dog/handler teams in the local program. They started making visits in January and have made visits to 12 hospice patients so far.

The therapy dog program was made possible in Douglas County by a grant from the Norma Roman Longfellow fund.

UNIQUE VOLUNTEERS

Tammie Lanners of Alexandria was introduced to the Pets are Wonderful Souls (PAWS) program in November 2009 at a hospice house in Florida where her mother was a patient.

Upon her return to Minnesota she called Hospice of Douglas County to ask if they had a pet therapy program in the hopes that she and her dog, Woody, could get involved.

Unfortunately, there was no funding available for such a program at the time.

In the meantime, Lanners' mother was moved to a hospice house in Marshall, where Woody had a chance to visit. He did well in the setting and Lanners was hopeful that together they could one day be of service to others.

In October 2010, that wish came true. Lanners received a call from Hospice of Douglas County stating that a therapy dog program was being formed.

She and Woody went through an interview process in October. She was asked questions while Woody was asked to follow basic commands. They were accepted into a November training program - along with seven other dogs and handlers.

The training was conducted by Canine Comfort, LLC of Neenah, Wisconsin, which provides consultation services to organizations wanting to develop therapy dog programs (www.caninecomfort.us).

The teams underwent classroom training and visited local assisted living and nursing home facilities to see how the dogs would react to patients with oxygen, rolling food carts, food odors, staff and family members wanting to pet them, alarms, buzzers, etc.

"I was very nervous as to how Woody would react in this environment," Lanners recalled. "According to the trainer, Woody is a natural!

"I was so excited when we were told he passed [the Canine Good Citizen test] in one of the quickest times ever. He did everything I asked of him on the first try. Such a proud owner moment for me!"

All seven dogs and handlers passed the intensive training.

A JOB TO DO

Once the teams passed the training, each was matched with a hospice patient.

Lanners and Woody were introduced to Fjordback and it didn't take long for all involved to become comfortable with one another.

Fjordback lived on a farm and had several dogs during her lifetime. She talks fondly of Beans, Scottie and Boots.

When it's time to make a visit, Woody dons his "Paws of Love" vest that identifies him as a therapy dog and Lanners tells him they are going to make a visit.

"There are certain terms we use when doing this," Lanners said. "We say we're going on a visit instead of going to work. When I say that and put his vest on, he knows exactly where he's going."

The team visits Fjordback once a week for 20 to 30 minutes. Lanners and Fjordback talk about dogs, kids and life on the farm, while the elderly woman buries her fingers into Woody's fur, rubbing his ears and being calmed by his presence.

A WORTHWHILE PROGRAM

While the Paws of Love program has only been operating locally for less than a year, those involved believe it is a worthwhile endeavor.

"The handlers provide us with reports after every visit and the stories are heartwarming," noted Lynn Johnson of Hospice of Douglas County. "They tell of how tender the dogs are with the patients and how the patients' eyes brighten and they sit up taller when the dog comes in the room."

Fjordback's family, which includes daughter Ellie Cavers of Alexandria, states that their loved one has benefitted from the program.

"We knew my mom would just love it," Cavers said. "Woody is very gentle with her and she really looks forward to his visits."

She pointed out that a picture of Woody now sits on a shelf with other pictures of Fjordback's family.

Lanners also hasn't been disappointed.

"This experience has allowed Woody and I to develop an even deeper bond and trust in each other knowing that we can bring a smile to someone's face, even if only for a few moments," she said.

For more information on or to donate to the "Paws of Love" Hospice of Douglas County Therapy Dog Program, call (320) 763-6018 or e-mail Lynn Johnson at lynn.johnson@mail.co.douglas.mn.us.

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Tara Bitzan
Tara Bitzan is editor of the Echo Press. She joined the company in 1991 as a news reporter. A lifelong resident of Douglas County, Tara graduated from Brandon High School and earned a bachelor of arts degree in mass communications and English with a minor in Scandinavian Studies from Moorhead State University. She and her husband, Dennis, and their children live near Alexandria.
(320) 763-1211
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