Carol Mussel will never forget her final visit with Shooter the therapy dog.
It was a Friday, the day Shooter always came to visit, and Carol was sitting her in usual chair with Shooter at her feet. She was petting her when, suddenly, Shooter reached her paw up, rested it on Carol and snuggled into her. While Shooter had always been friendly, this was out of character and it took Carol by surprise.
“She never did that before,” Carol said. “I looked it up afterwards when a dog puts their paw on you like that and it means they love you.”
A few weeks later, Shooter passed away after a lengthy battle with thrombocytopenia, an autoimmune disease that impacts dogs’ blood cells, causing low platelets.
The news was a blow to Carol, who, due to her own autoimmune disease, was avoiding visitors as much as possible during the pandemic. Her visits with Shooter had become something she looked forward to.
“I knew when she’d be coming and I’d be waiting,” Carol said. “She had unconditional love. She was a great dog.”
It’s an experience many seniors share and one of the primary reasons pet therapy or animal therapy, is part of regular activity programming at Andrews Senior Care and ProTem Memory Care. Studies have shown spending time with animals can reduce the risk of depression, lower levels of anxiety, reduce feelings of loneliness and improve social skills.
“I don’t think people realize what a benefit it is for mental health,” said Kim Jay, a registered nurse at our Summerside home.
Kim was first introduced to the idea of animal therapy through her daughter, who had been spending time at Island Hill Farm as a way of coping with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It’s her happy place,” Kim said of the farm. “It’s where we go to unwind and destress. It’s pretty amazing.”
After seeing the positive impact spending time around the animals was having on her daughter, Kim, who volunteers at the farm, arranged to have some of the animals visit Andrews of Summerside.
“You certainly see them soften when you bring an animal in,” Kim said of the residents. “They were so excited when they came in.”
The benefits for people living with dementia are even more profound.
“It’s a source of powerful non-verbal communication that fulfills that basic human need for touch,” said Danielle DeAgazio, a sales and relationship manager at our Moncton dementia care home. “Everyone wants to feel connected and it’s simple to do when you have a pet there.”
She added, for many residents living with dementia, spending time with an animal can help trigger positive memories of their own pets and can lead to conversations and increased socialization.
“It’s a real mood elevator,” she said.
Debbie Miller, Shooter’s owner, couldn’t agree more.
Debbie has been volunteering with St. John Ambulance to provide pet therapy to senior homes for three years. She said the experience has been extremely rewarding.
“It’s been fabulous,” she said. “Through the three years I’ve been going to Andrews I’ve made friends. I’ve bonded with people. It’s almost like they’re a member of the family. You develop friendships.”
Which is why Debbie intends to have her new puppy, Daisy, follow in Shooter’s paw-steps and become a pet therapy dog.
“You have to agree to this for the long term,” she said. “Once you start going, you have to keep going because people look forward to it.”