Patients in the Pingtung Christian Hospital’s hospice ward were recently cheered by an innovative type of therapy: “Doctor Dogs.”
A white poodle named Chuan Chuan (卷捲), a Chihuahua named Pipi (鼻鼻) and a Labrador retriever named Chia Le (家樂) — all trained by the Formosa Animal-Assisted Activity and Therapy Association — were selected to participate in the hospital’s program to introduce complementary therapies in its hospice ward.
The hospice has been providing special care for the terminally ill for 17 years and, in recent years, has introduced aromatherapy, music, arts, pets and Chinese medicinal meals to help ease the discomfort of those under its care.
According to the hospital, the hospice was originally reserved for patients with terminal cancer, but has in recent years opened its doors to those in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease or other diseases.
Statistics show that there are only 350 people staying in hospices in Pingtung County, while another 500 hire hospice staff to care for them at home.
However, the hospital said about 1,800 people die from cancer annually in Pingtung County, adding that more than half of those with terminal cancer do not receive hospice care.
The hospital has started a two-month long program in the hope of introducing and promoting the hospital’s hospice services and complementary therapies.
Liang Tzu-an (梁子安), director of the hospital’s acupuncture and pain division, said that terminally ill people often experience general pain — both physical and psychological.
Complementary therapies such as aromatherapy, music, art, games and pets not only help alleviate their discomfort and complications from diseases, but also help family members come to terms with the imminent death of their loved ones, Liang said.
Current research into therapy dogs and their effects in hospices — especially their role in potential palliative care — suggest that interaction with these dogs may increase a patient’s oxytocin and dopamine levels, the main agents for bonding and happiness, while lowering cortisol, the main agent for stress.
It is also a reason why therapy dogs are trained to perform some little tricks and lead their patients into playing with them, helping patients put aside their sense of loss and insecurity.
According to the dogs’ owners, not all dogs are eligible for training, and the association screens and evaluates potential candidates.
The owner and the dog must pass the basic, intermediate and advanced classes to be certified by the association.
The dogs undergo further training every year to renew their certificates as therapy dogs, the owners said.
Wang Man-ho (王曼鶴), owner of Chia Le, said it was not only the patients who benefit from the training, the owners also benefit by gaining a greater understanding of their pets.
“Through the professional training, we are brought one step closer to our pets as we understand their habits more,” Wang said.
Lin Chiung-yun (林瓊韻), the owner of Chuan Chuan, agreed.
Chuan Chuan was extremely shy before becoming a therapy dog, Lin said.
Now, Chuan Chuan is not only docile and unafraid of people, it also seems very happy when interacting with patients and other people, Lin said.