Nursing home therapy dogs: courage givers, door openers and conversation starters

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Kevin R. McMahon
Kevin R. McMahon


The literature abounds with citations about the benefits that accrue to residents of institutions when animals become an integral part of their lives.

I have been a nursing home administrator for over 20 years. During that time, I'd like to believe that I have helped my fair share of older adults realize a more meaningful and comfortable existence.

Having said that, there is absolutely nothing that I have done that would rival the salutary effects of introducing a dog by the name of Daisy to the facility where I work, The Merriman of Akron, OH.

Daisy is a Labradoodle. Bred to take full advantage of a standard poodle's brain and a Labrador's endless supply of love and desire to please, the Labradoodle is an ideal dog for nursing home residents. Reaching a height of some 24 inches, the Labradoodle also makes for an easy-to-reach companion for those in wheelchairs. I began introducing Daisy to the residents of The Merriman when she was five months old.

Warm reaction

 
The reaction of the residents to Daisy was immediate and overwhelming.  They fell in love with her from their first moments together. They embraced her in such a convincing fashion that her visits increased to three times a week. Her usual routine was to make an appearance at the end of an activity on the nursing unit. She would visit each of the residents gathered in a big circle. They would give her a treat (provided by me) and she would give them a chance to pet her and possibly have her do a trick for them.

At the conclusion, the residents would serenade her with several verses of, "(How Much is) That Doggie in the Window?" After that, Daisy and I would make room visits and finish with stops to see an assortment of assisted living residents.

Not only would Daisy give residents helping doses of love but she also was always unflinching in her approach to residents. No matter how strange a resident appeared, Daisy gave him or her the same love she did to the employee sitting at the front reception desk.

In addition, Daisy always created multiple opportunities for residents to reflect on and recollect their experiences with the beloved pets of their past.

The reaction of the residents to Daisy was so obviously beneficial we wanted to find a way to encourage more dogs (and their owners) to visit nursing homes and their residents. Since arranging to have a dog like Daisy work and visit residents cannot always be replicated in other facilities, we turned our attention to the millions of dog owners who represented potential human and canine visitation teams. As we considered potential dog and owner volunteers and the realities of most nursing homes, two truths came to light:

• Volunteerism in nursing homes and other institutional settings lags behind that of places such as hospitals. Multiple psychological barriers exist to volunteering in these settings.

• Misinformation about requirements for dogs visiting nursing homes abounds. Many dog owners believe that only therapy dogs can visit nursing homes. In addition, nursing homes and other institutional settings such as group homes for mentally challenged individuals do not recognize the opportunities that dog visitors and their owners represent.

The Daisy Project


In an effort to increase the presence of both dogs and their owners in institutional settings, the Daisy Project was conceived. The Daisy Project is an outreach program of The Merriman Good life Foundation. The Foundation is a 501(c)3 organization dedicated to improving the lives of nursing home residents.

The Daisy Project has two essential goals:

1) To demonstrate that dogs can serve as catalysts to human volunteers becoming actively involved in nursing homes and other institutional settings.  Dogs are unparalleled "courage givers," "door openers" and "conversation starters" that can make these institutional settings a much more comfortable experience for human volunteers.

2) To make dog owners aware of the unlimited opportunities for dogs of all skill levels to visit nursing homes. Also, to serve as a resource for nursing homes and other institutions seeking to have regular canine visitors.
The Daisy project can be accessed through a Web site established by The Merriman Good Life Foundation. Its Web address is www.TMGLFoundation.org.

The Daisy Project page of the Web site provides educational and operational resources. For those who are visiting nursing homes and other institutional settings with their dog, the Web site contains a place to share a photo and tell about their experiences.

The PETCO Foundation (the national pet store chain) has been approached to provide support for the Daisy Project. It holds as one of its core values: "Rejoice - We embrace the healing power of animals. It is our belief that the human/animal bond is vital to life."

Daisy has shown the power of this healing and made an indelible impression that dogs of all shapes and sizes can reclaim this human/animal bond for residents of all sorts of institutions. The Daisy Project is dedicated to make this rejoicing something heard in an ever-increasing number of institutions all across America.

Kevin R. McMahon is the administrator at The Merriman, a 136-bed skilled nursing and assisted living facility in Akron, OH.
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