Anyone who has ever loved a dog knows that they can be much more than a furry merrymaker. A dog can be a true source of comfort.
People who have been on the receiving end of a dog’s unconditional love or felt the warmth of a dog’s body nestled tightly by their side during a time of stress or illness, understand that some dogs are actually therapists.
These therapy dogs will not ask you to sit on a couch and talk about your childhood. Instead, they know how to simply be present in the midst of life’s most stressful and painful situations. They show unbridled affection through a wagging tail and offer support by leaning into your hug or resting their head on your hand.
In fact, following last year’s mass shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, more than a dozen therapy dogs were flown to Florida to bring a dose of comfort to a community rocked by the deadliest shooting in U.S. history. Twelve golden retrievers met with thousands of survivors, family members and first responders who were shaken by the tragedy. Some of the dogs were even brought to the intensive care unit to visit victims of the shooting.
The patients, with bandaged hands and tubes in their bodies, just wanted to pet the dogs. In some cases, they talked directly to their hairy companions because they were good listeners. They are confidential. They do not take notes or judge. They just love.
Nobody understands this more than Yolo Hospice volunteer Nancy Dowling and her therapy dog Bentley. Together, they visit people who are receiving care through Yolo Hospice. It has been through these visits that Nancy decided to capture stories through the eyes and voice of Bentley. The following three vignettes are her translations of Bentley’s experience with three patients named Ellie, Ken and Alice (In Bentley’s own words).
Ellie: I visited Ellie for about four months. She was very sick and it was often difficult for her to form words in a clear enough way for people to understand. However, when she talked to me, I knew exactly what she was saying. While she stroked my head, she told me that I was beautiful and that she loved my visits. During one memorable visit Nancy softly said to Ellie, “I think Bentley really likes you.” To our surprise, Ellie quickly responded with great clarity and energy. She said, “No, Bentley doesn’t like me. He loves me.”
Ken: When Nancy and I knocked on Ken’s hospital door, I could already feel the heavy, dark weight of the family’s sadness. Ken’s wife, Emma, and their adult daughters were keeping vigil as Ken, non-responsive and breathing with difficulty, waited for death. Slowly, I went over to Emma, sat down and looked up into her eyes. She immediately knelt down on the floor and hugged me saying that I was very beautiful, gentle, and soft.
With tears in her eyes, Emma asked Nancy if I could come closer to Ken. Nancy lifted me into bed with Ken. Sensing his weakness, I curled up next to him very carefully and very gently rested my head on his chest. Emma took her husband’s hand and rubbed my head softly and said, “Look, honey, this beautiful dog came to see you.” For the very briefest of moments, Ken opened his eyes, smiled, and grabbed my fur. I’m pretty sure I brought him and his family some comfort as he was transitioning to a new place.
Alice: When we were asked to visit Alice, Nancy was told that Alice was taciturn and often unwilling to engage with visitors. Nancy and I didn’t quite know what to expect on the day of our first visit.
When we arrived at Alice’s room in the nursing home, we stood hesitantly at the doorway. Nancy quietly asked Alice if she would like us to visit. Given what we had heard about Alice, we were extremely surprised when she responded with a huge smile and eagerly told us that she loved dogs. She said Shelties were her favorite.
I visited Alice for eight months before she passed away. We had the best visits ever. She always caressed me for long periods of time, and was always ready for my visit with a generous stash of dog cookies. Frequently, she would stare at my face with a certain fondness and tell Nancy that she could feel my love. Because I was there, Alice and Nancy developed a close relationship and had wonderful conversations together. It was a very happy time for all of us.
Special note: Bentley is an amiable, mellow Sheltie who likes everyone. Before moving to Davis from Colorado in 2016, Bentley visited patients for four years at one of Yolo Hospice’s nonprofit sister organizations, TRU Care, in Boulder. Nancy says Bentley has an uncanny ability to know when someone is in their last 18 hours of life. When they are visiting a patient, and it’s time to leave, Nancy always asks, “Bentley are you ready?” Sometimes, Bentley will raise his head and repeatedly look at Nancy, look at the patient, and then gently rest his head on the patient’s chest. “When that happens,” Nancy says, “I know that the patient is in his or her final hours of life.”