Rían: The therapy dog who’s a leading member of the team at Our Lady’s Hospice

Contributing to our new series, ‘Palliative Care and Animals’, Noreen Holland, Assistant Director of Nursing at Our Lady’s Hospice & Care Services in Dublin, Ireland, introduces us to therapy dog, Rían.  

Noreen Holland

Pets provide companionship, love and devoted loyalty to their owners, giving purpose, connectedness and much joy. Our therapy dog, Rían,ticks these boxes and more. His presence brings an added dimension to the team that benefits not only the patients, but family, staff and volunteers alike.

A belief in the value of pets is evident in Our Lady’s Hospice & Care Services, over the years. Fish in tanks are commonplace. A chattering budgie has been known to subdue the assertions of a vocal ward manager. Visiting animals have provided therapeutic value for individuals and families in the hospice during times of grief and impending loss. Every request for a pet visit is considered and is supported once an acceptable plan is in place, ensuring that each visit is safe for all concerned. Cats, dogs, snakes and even a horse have visited for cuddles and hugs, and a farewell meeting with their owners. Some have even slept over, but not the horse. Organised pet visits can also be arranged via ‘Peata’, a voluntary organisation in Ireland whose main objectives are:

  • To provide a pet visiting service as a therapy to places of care.
  • To promote an awareness of the benefits people derive from pets.
  • To further the understanding of the relationship between people and pets.

Rían is a firm favourite with patients and staff alike. Photo with kind permission of Our Lady’s Hospice & Care Services.

How we prepared for Rían’s role at the hospice

Staff at the hospice believe that pet therapy is more than simply having time with a pet or a visiting animal. This opinion inspired negotiations for a resident therapy dog and so, just over three years ago our therapy dog Rían, a golden retriever, arrived. He was just a twelve-week-old puppy then. Having a therapy dog on the unit is exciting but it takes commitment and hard work to get it right. The goal was to bring comfort to patients and families and maybe enhance the value of the palliative care service and we are confident that we have succeeded on that front. However, there was some apprehension about having a therapy dog. A risk assessment was completed and a policy and guidelines were developed. However, much of the learning resulted from ‘reflection in action’. For example, we soon realised that a dog needs one master. Having several ‘mammies’ confused him and impaired his behavioural development in the early days. Formal guidance was provided by a recognised dog trainer – we had made a few mistakes in developing Rían. We also needed to establish a ‘poo patrol team’. We have fabulous garden spaces that are also highly therapeutic, so it is important that a balance is maintained.

What our patients and families think of Rían

There are many heart-warming stories of the joy that Rían brings to patients and families. Clearly, he provides companionship and pleasing diversion for many, though some are surprised and question the rationale of having a dog on the ward. All are accepting of his value, once they realise that he is well behaved and respectful of their personal space. Many have said that just meeting him helps allay anxiety about coming into the hospice. His presence, they claim, helps bring a sense of calm and some even say that they are less aware of their pain and distress when they are with him. Visiting children love to pat him and he has become one of the most photographed dogs in Dublin. There is some evidence in the literature supporting the value of a therapy dog but for the most part the evidence is anecdotal. Our evidence is a lived experience and it is positive but there are challenges.

For staff thinking about getting a therapy dog; there is general guidance available in the international literature. Obvious criteria such as being fully house trained, having no history of aggressive behaviour, having a friendly disposition and being able to obey simple commands are listed. Handlers are required to ensure that the dog is up to date with vaccinations, be mindful of the health and safety.

Rían and owner, Carol, meet HRH The Prince of Wales during his visit to Our Lady’s Hospice & Care Services. Photograph: Paul Sharp, Sharppix.

Rían has learned to embrace visiting celebrities and corporate donors with charm and cooperation. He is so familiar with camera attention, that he has perfected a ‘catwalk’ performance and he is happy to stand in for ‘selfies’. Evenings and at weekends (unless his master is on duty), Rían goes to the country where he lives a normal dog’s life with his two friends and their owner.



Links and resources

Next week on the blog, Dr Ingrid Payet will explain what animals bring to palliative care patients in Toulouse, France.


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2 Responses to Rían: The therapy dog who’s a leading member of the team at Our Lady’s Hospice

  1. Lovely to read how well this is working out, and how the team took expert advice to safeguard Rian’s well-being so that he might not be a risk to the patients and team.
    Like all non-human animals probably, dogs’ apparent inability to think complex thoughts or to reflect on those or on their memories, gives them a wonderful open-ness to the present moment and everything and -one in it (and, perhaps, to suffer more than a human might when the present is distressing). This quality can be such a gift at vulnerable or demanding times in our lives, as patients or carers, and certainly seems to be being borne out at Our Lady’s Hospice. Best wishes to all concerned.

  2. Pingback: Rían: The therapy dog who’s a leading member of the team at Our Lady’s Hospice | EAPC Blog- Shared via Jennifer Moran Stritch | Loss, Grief, Bereavement and Life Transitions Resource Library

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