Dog volunteers are making a difference for hospice patients

© 2017-Rochelle News-Leader

In honor of National Volunteer Month this April, learn how these two dogs are volunteering to make a difference in the lives of hospice patients in our community.

ROCHELLE – Lucky and Gracie are not your average long-haired Chihuahuas.
For one thing, they’re very calm and quiet – in contrast to the “yippity-yappity” stereotype Chihuahuas usually have. For another, they’re volunteers. That’s right, volunteers.
The two dogs, aged 8 and 9, are a part of Unity Hospice’s Paws for Patients program, one of the hospice’s most well-received volunteer-based programs. Paws for Patients involves therapy dogs visiting hospice patients to bring comfort and smiles to those who may have lost the comfort of family and friends.
The presence of animals often brings peace and joy to patients whose life once included pets. In addition to a plethora of emotional benefits, pet therapy has also shown to provide certain physical benefits such as reducing anxiety, and lowering blood pressure and heart rate.
Lucky and Gracie’s owner and handler, Kelly Shroyer, is the community relations representative at Unity Hospice of Western Illinois, located in Rochelle. Shroyer had the idea to train them as service animals when she realized how everyone who met them instantly gravitated to them. In the training session (which tests the dogs’ temperaments, obedience and handler interaction), Lucky and Gracie did so well that the usual 9-week training took half the time. The dogs just recently celebrated their first anniversary of visiting Unity Hospice patients.
“They say that babies, animals and music are the bridge to everything,” Shroyer said, “and these dogs can work miracles. Many of our patients, who are nonverbal and unexpressive, haven’t shown emotion in a while. I’ll put the dogs on their lap, and they’ll smile for the first time in weeks!”
In one unique instance, Lucky and Gracie had been visiting a patient for several months.
“Even though she wasn’t very receptive or communicative, she’d have the dogs cuddle in bed with her, or snuggle up in her chair. And when she did so, she had a smile as big as the world. When our dogs were there, she was so at ease; so calm. The nurses told me that this was the only time she’d smile all day,” Shroyer said.
When Shroyer heard that the patient had passed, she went to the funeral with Lucky and Gracie – as she usually does.
“As soon as her family saw the dogs, they ran up to us. The patient’s sister, who had heard about the wonderful work the Chihuahuas had done, took Gracie to sit on her lap for the ceremony. ‘My sister always told me about your dogs, and how each visit meant so much to her,’ she said. Anyway, the ceremony was starting, and I realized I couldn’t find Lucky. Worriedly, I began searching. Finally, I found him: He had sat himself right down under our patient’s casket.”  
“When we saw this, both the patient’s sister and I had tears streaming down. ‘I can’t believe it,’ she said. “Lucky is even bringing comfort to my sister even after she’s passed.’”
Both Lucky and Gracie are rescue dogs. “Gracie had a particularly traumatic past,” Shroyer describes. She had been thrown out of a car window and left for dead in the middle of the road after her previous owners were finished using her as a breeder. “When I heard her terrible story, I just knew I had to have her. I named her Gracie because her life was saved by the grace of God.”
“What’s remarkable,” Shroyer said, “is that in spite of the terrible upbringing Gracie had for the first few years of her life, she’s now bringing so much love and joy to everyone she meets. Even when some patients are less than gentle with the dogs (due to effects of their dementia, Alzheimer’s, or various anxiety disorders), Lucky and Gracie have always been calm, friendly, and pleasant to them,” Shroyer says. “In the past year they’ve been working with hospice patients, they’ve never once growled at a patient who had been rough.”
“The connection that happens between the dogs and the patients is so much more than can be described in words,” Shroyer said. “Let’s be honest, not everybody is excited to talk about hospice, or to be under hospice care. But they’re the cutest things, so they’re the icebreaker to everything. They bring so much light, love and laughter to our patients.”
To learn more about Paws for Patients or other volunteer opportunities at Unity Hospice, visit https://www.unityhospice.com/volunteers/.  
About Unity Hospice

Founded in 1992, Unity Hospice is a family owned and operated hospice and palliative care company committed to providing comprehensive care, support and education to people facing a life-limiting illness, those who care for them and the community. Unity Hospice offers care of the highest quality by licensed and competent staff in accordance with laws & regulations and accepted standards of practice.
With the dedication to make their patients’ days comfortable, Unity Hospice provides an interdisciplinary approach to each individual and family, in which they go above and beyond every day to meet their needs. For more information, visit http://www.unityhospice.com/.