Dogs provide hospice help

At center in Oregon, they show a knack for giving comfort to the dying

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ALBANY, Ore. — It can be a hard thing coming to a hospice house, to a center specifically created to care for people nearing the end of their lives.

Patients can be overwhelmed by their illnesses or personal circumstances. Families can be deep in grief — or denial.

At Samaritan Evergreen Hospice House, three small staff members work to give patients and visitors something new to think about, just by being their furry, tail-wagging selves.

"They open the door to a connection," said Anne Arquette, whose mixed Lab-border collie, Marfa, has been a therapy dog with Samaritan Evergreen Hospice since 2006. "They're just a comfort. Something to focus on that's not your disease."

Marfa was saved from euthanization at an Arizona animal shelter when an Oregon State University student working at the shelter chose her — the last of a group of 16 dogs — to travel to Heartland Humane Society in Corvallis.

Arquette, a registered nurse and home hospice case manager, adopted her and began bringing her along to hospice care and nursing homes at the request of the people at those centers.

The experience led Arquette to get Marfa certified as Samaritan Evergreen Hospice's first therapy dog. Now, at age 10, the friendly black dog with the graying muzzle still makes the rounds at Timberwood Court Memory Care Center and at homes with hospice care.

Marfa almost always brings a smile, and some patients will talk about her when they've all but stopped communicating, Arquette said.

She particularly remembers the woman who'd been silent for some time, then stunned staff members at Timberwood by asking Arquette, "Did you bring your dog today?"

Marfa's canine coworkers these days are JJ, 3, a golden retriever who belongs to registered nurse Tracy Calhoun, and Phoebe, a 7-month-old Cardigan Welsh corgi who is the youngest Project Canine therapy dog in the state.

The dogs can make a big difference in those few days a patient is there. They also can help grieving family members when they're not yet ready to talk with a person, Calhoun said.