Hospice therapy dog ready for full-time duty

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 13, 2013

SALISBURY — When you enter Liberty Lane, Salisbury VA Medical Center’s hospice house, one of the first staff members you may meet greets you wearing a patch on her uniform that says, “I’m friendly. Please pet me.”

Seeing anyone wearing a patch like that would be a strange sight, but Semper Fi isn’t your normal staff member.

Fi is a 2-year-old therapy dog that works at the hospice house. After nearly a year of training and working part-time at hospice, Fi is now ready to become a full-time staff member of the facility.

“It’s a big step for the VA, to have an off-leash dog. It surprised me — it’s like a dream come true. I didn’t think I would see it in my lifetime,” said Nina Dix, Fi’s owner, trainer and VA volunteer.

Dix said a lot of preparation has gone into preparing Fi for full-time duty.

“I socialized her everywhere, with all kinds of people, to get her ready to transition here because you never know what types of people she will encounter,” she said. “At first I brought her in and we would walk around for like an hour, and then slowly we have built up how long she stays to get her used to it.”

The lab/beagle mix will spend her weekdays at the hospice house and go home on weekends with her primary caretaker, Melanie Foster, hospice program support assistant. Fi has a kennel at the hospice house, which should be completed soon, equipped with an automatic door so she can go out and relieve herself, and the plan is to kennel her from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m.

Foster said that after researching the lifespan of therapy dogs, it was decided Fi would need time away from the facility because it’s better for their mental well-being if they are not “working” 24/7.

“With the nature of a hospice environment, people die here and naturally there is grieving. Going home with me will keep her around life, love and action,” said Foster.

“She will still go home with Melanie on weekends. Her house is full of children, love — everything that Fi needs for a well-rounded life,” added Dix.

Having that downtime is also good for Fi because, while being petted and visiting patients may not sound like work to a human, it can be exhausting for a therapy animal, said Dix.

“When I first started bringing her for the whole day, she got so tired because of constant stimulation. She would be exhausted,” said Dix. “So it took a couple of weeks to get her to be able to stay more than one day without being zonked out. She didn’t feel like there was a place where she could go rest. In her world, it really is work — enjoyable, but work.”

And Fi does seem to enjoy her work. “On Mondays, after being at home for the weekend, I put her vest on her and she’s happy because she knows she’s coming here. Her tail wags — she gets happy, so we know she’s happy here,” said Dix.

Fi has the run of the “house” when she is at work. She can freely visit patients and rest when she needs it, but she also knows some areas are off limits.

“The patients love to see her come freely in and out of the rooms, and that is ultimately the goal. She will be able to go around on her own,” said Foster. “There are patients very few and far between that would not like visits for one reason or another, and we have red flags we set at their door and she will not go in.”

Dix said she came up with the flag marker idea because as patients come and go, off-limit areas can change, and the flags can be added or removed. There are also flags to keep Fi from entering the kitchen area.

James Landers, a hospice patient and an Army retiree, said he enjoys his visits with Fi.

“She comes by every once in a while and sees me. She likes to come in and lay at my feet and I rub her,” said the Griffin, Ga., native. “I figure everyone has owned a dog at one time or another when you were young and it’s been years since I owned one, but it makes a difference in my day when she visits me.”

Dix said making that difference is what the program is all about.

“I’ve done pet therapy for years. It’s different for different people. Some people, it brings back different memories and the company of the dog they lost. Others, they still get enjoyment out of it because it’s unconditional love,” she said. “What’s not to love about a dog sitting there looking at you, thinking you’re the world? Dogs give that to everybody. But it’s really cool when you can give that to veterans because they’ve done so much for us.”