Pet therapy in palliative care at Calvary Health Care Sydney

Another post in our series on ‘Palliative Care and Animals’ …

Calvary Health Care Kogarah is a public hospital in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, providing specialist palliative care and rehabilitation services. Pet therapy has been part of the hospital’s landscape for the past 25 years or so and provides comfort, enjoyment, distraction and a unique form of interaction with our patients, their visitors and our staff. Sharon Towe, one of four volunteers working in the programme, and Anne-Marie Traynor, Manager Volunteer Services, tell us more.

Pet therapy programme volunteer, Sharon, with her dogs and some of the staff. (With kind permission of Calvary Health Care Sydney).

Sharon: I joined the pet therapy programme as a volunteer in 2017 with my dog Kane, who graduated as a guide dog last year, and now therapy dogs, Sass and Tilly, have joined the programme too.

I love being part of the pet therapy programme. Whether it be patients young and old, doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, family, friends and staff, it is so apparent how much all enjoy seeing our four-legged friends.

Two patients that remain in my memory

One was a very elderly gentleman in a single room whose family had gathered and were keeping vigil. When one of the family saw me with Tilly, a Border cross collie, she exclaimed with great delight that her dad would love to see Tilly.

I entered the room with Tilly and although their dad was not conscious, the family beckoned me to come closer as they bent over telling their dad about Tilly and including him in the conversation. They lovingly recounted stories about the beloved pets that had been part of their family over the years. As I left the room, it was amazing to witness how the mood in the room had changed from sombre to smiles and laughter, amidst a few happy tears, and I am sure this encounter will remain a special memory for them in the years to come.

Another day I was visiting with Sass, a Labrador. One of our young cancer patients, who had been waiting for days for the dogs to come in, said she had been sleeping with one ear open waiting for the sound of dog paws on the floor.

Pet therapy programme volunteer, Sass. (With kind permission of Calvary Health Care Sydney).

Sass was met with open eyes and a huge smile as she entered the room. Invited to come closer, Sass put her front paws up onto the bed. Many cuddles, pats, licks and a beaming smile followed. The joy, also shared by the staff that were watching as the patient interacted with Sass, was wonderful. They knew how much this patient had been looking forward to this special visitor.

What do staff think of the pet therapy programme?

Working on the days the dogs come in is the best day of the week,” is a frequent comment from staff. It not only brings so much enjoyment to patients and visitors but also provides a moment’s respite for staff members. It’s a lovely sight to see and, of course, Sass and Tilly enjoy all the extra love and attention, so it is smiles all round.

Pet therapy is so special. There is no judgement, just unconditional acceptance – whether it’s just sitting by the bedside as I listen to people’s stories, or patients wanting the dogs to be closer so they can pat them – the dogs are happy to respond accordingly.

What we look for when we recruit volunteers to the pet therapy programme

Anne-Marie: As Manager of Volunteer Services, I have to be sure that people wishing to be part of this programme have good communication skills, sensitivity and a willingness to be present in an environment where people may be experiencing grief and loss. We provide all our volunteers with mandatory training and orientation to ensure they are adequately prepared to work safely in a healthcare environment.

For our four-legged volunteers, animal evaluation is a specialised skill, and evaluators are trained to identify stress responses in the animal’s temperament and aptitude. Displays of aggression, distractedness and nervousness will disqualify an animal for therapy or visiting purposes.

Evidence of dog training includes:

  • An evaluation of the animal’s ability to obey basic commands;
  • Demonstration of a confident and gentle relationship;
  • The ability of an animal to cope with unexpected or stressful situations, being in the presence of many strangers and dealing with the many distractions (e.g. noises and smells) of a health facility;
  • Certification of the animal’s vaccination status, and veterinary screening.

We couldn’t count the amount of positive comments we get from patients, families and staff, such as, “What a great service this is,” and one that Sharon and other volunteers often hear: “You must have the best job”.


Read more posts on the EAPC blog about Palliative Care and Animals.

Have you signed the Voice of Volunteering Charter?

Let’s advocate for the support, recognition, promotion and development of volunteering in hospice and palliative care. Please sign the Voice of Volunteering – The EAPC Madrid Charter on Volunteering in Hospice and Palliative Care.


Are you coming to #EAPC2019 in Berlin?

Then look out look for the International Symposium: Volunteers at the Heart of Hospice and Palliative Care – Saturday 25 May 2019 at 10h00 to 17h00, Estrel Congress Centre, Berlin

This special symposium, taking place at the 16th EAPC World Congress in Berlin, is for volunteers in the field of hospice and palliative care, coordinators/leaders of volunteer hospice teams, managers of hospice organisations and associations, trainers and supervisors of hospice volunteers. See more here. View the full EAPC World Congress programme here.

This entry was posted in Palliative Care & Animals, VOLUNTEERING IN PALLIATIVE CARE and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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