Hospice will feature four-legged resident

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 5, 2012

SALISBURY — Semper Fi has you at hello.
She’s a brown-eyed beauty. In fact, she’s pretty much brown all over. Nina Dix, this rescue dog’s owner and trainer, only uses her full name of Semper Fi for those infrequent times when she has to be scolded like the adolescent she is.
Otherwise, Dix and everyone else at the Hefner VA Medical Center call her “Fi.”
To say that she’s already popular is an understatement.
On seeing Fi in the hallways of Building 42, Brenda, a patient, moves as fast as she can to her room and invites Fi in for some treats kept in the drawer by her bed.
“How are you doing today, Brenda?” Dix asks.
“I’m doing good now,” she says as Fi scoops the food from her hand.
Fi has been going through a socialization period at Building 42 of the VA hospital, preparing her for the day — and it’s coming soon — when she will be a permanent resident in the new 12-suite hospice wing.
“I think she’s taking to everybody,” Dix says. “It’s almost like it was meant to be.”
It’s a learning period for both Fi and Dix, a certified evaluator and trainer of therapy dogs and a dog behavior specialist.
For Dix, the big challenge is preparing a dog that essentially will be on her own, when Fi becomes —for lack of a better way to describe it — the hospice dog.
That’s not to say there won’t be a support team behind her. Rowan Animal Clinic already has donated her spaying, a microchip and the cleaning of her teeth. Judy Griffin will be contributing periodic bathing and grooming.
And Dix will remain legally responsible for Fi, stopping in to check on her and making sure to give her play days at Dix’s Doggie Holiday boarding operation.
With all the time she’ll be putting in with the hospice patients, Fi will need days off to socialize with other dogs, Dix explains.
The big challenges for Fi will be adapting to and being obedient to many different people — hospice patients, staff and the visitors coming to the new facility.
Doing this off-leash, on her own, is “a whole different arena,” Dix says. As far as she knows, few hospice care facilities in North Carolina have resident therapy dogs.
Since January, Dix has been exposing Fi to as many social situations and people as possible.
The 2-year-old Labrador retriever-beagle mix (Dix’s best guess) has responded almost perfectly. When she confronts something new, her head usually turns up toward Dix.
“She’ll look at you for guidance,” Dix says.
For now, Dix keeps Fi on a leash for their frequent visits to Building 42. She’ll often hand over the leash to one of the hospice patients, most notably Frank Burns, who could play an important part in Fi’s transition to the new facility.
“What a perfect match they are,” Dix says.
A big part of the off-leash training for Fi in the new hospice wing will involve setting boundaries — where she can go and not go.
Areas such as the Carolina Cafe and the facility’s kitchens will be out of bounds. But she’ll have a doggie door for going in and out on her own, and the new facility has a designated kennel where she can sleep and eat.
But around the hospice suites and places such as the family and game rooms, Fi probably will have license to roam.
Fi won’t be staying overnight right away, but friends such as Burns will help her comfort level grow.
Dix’s father was in the Army; her father-in-law, the Marine Corps. Semper Fi owes her name to the Marine motto, Latin for “always faithful.”
With a directive to find a hospice therapy dog for the VA, Dix visited animal shelters in Rowan, Davidson and Cabarrus counties, looking for a particular softness and easy-going disposition. She also wanted a fairly young dog who could be a fixture at the hospice for many years.
By chance, Dr. Greg Lowe at Rowan Animal Clinic suggested one day that Dix take a look at a rescue dog in the clinic’s kennels.
Dix realized the brown dog looking back at her was the one.
“She has this calmness about her,” Dix says. “You see every dog in her.”
Besides the socialization, Dix’s training has tried to anticipate the kinds of things Fi will confront in the hospice setting.
As in most dog training, it’s as much about educating people as it is the dogs, Dix says.
She is confident Fi will know when people want to be near her — and when they don’t. “Dogs are loving and caring and eager to please by nature,” she says. If Fi meets people who are afraid of dogs, Dix predicts she will instinctively hang back.
Will Fi recognize what her job is, providing therapy for veterans approaching the final chapter in their lives?
Dix thinks she will, instinctively.
With Cheryl Peevy, Dix founded the Canine Caregivers therapy dog group, whose motto is “Paws Touching Hearts.”
She also established her One Dog at a Time Rescue program, and she operates Doggie Holiday, which provides home-styled boarding and training.
Dix has experience taking therapy dogs into nursing homes and making visits to hospice care in Cabarrus County, but this resident dog aspect is new even for her.
“Everything I do has something to do with dogs,” Dix says. “My world is dogs and helping people.”
Dix especially likes that she is training Semper Fi for veterans, many of whom have given up their own dogs as their health has deteriorated.
“Everything we have we owe to veterans,” Dix says. “This is nothing compared to the feeling I get out of it.”
Excuse the pun, but as he motors down a Building 42 hallway in his wheelchair, tethered to Fi, Burns has a new leash on life.
“I can’t wait to have her around all the time,” he says.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.