Fuzzy Bear, Friendly Lion, Gentle Giant, even Chocolate Moose – all these nicknames are applicable to one very large and special dog who brightens the lives of many Rhode Islanders on a daily basis. Unlike most dogs who typically have a tendency to freeload, Rosie, a seven-year-old one-hundred-pound Leonberger, has a “real” job, with a job description, ID badge and even her own business cards. That job serves a vitally important function: as therapy animal for Hope Hospice & Palliative Care Rhode Island (Hope Hospice RI) in Providence.
Rosie and her owner, Dace Krasts of North Kingstown, have taken extensive training and are certified through national Pet Partners to volunteer as a therapeutic team for Hope Hospice RI, the leading local non-profit organization offering hospice services in this region. They work one-on-one with patients and caregivers to form a relationship that provides companionship, relaxation, emotional support and joy through the unique connection between humans and animals. Every Wednesday they visit Hope Hospice RI’s 24-bed Phillip Hulitar Hospice Center on North Main Street in Providence to offer patients, family members and staff the opportunity to interact. Krasts is also a therapy animal team evaluator for Pet Partners, helping other people and pets become therapy teams.
Krasts says, “Because Rosie’s so big and soft, people want to hug her all the time. Regardless of what condition they’re in, patients are often comforted by her wet nose and calm presence.” And she is indeed a remarkably calm dog. While the humans around her talk, she sits patiently, then lies down contentedly. When a new person enters, she quietly looks in their direction with her liquid brown eyes, awaiting an invitation to approach.
Leonbergers are one of the largest of official dog breeds, descended from Newfoundlands, Great Pyrenees and St. Bernard’s. They are known for their loyal, intelligent, playful and kindly nature, friendly to children and other dogs. All Leonbergers today can have their ancestry traced to the eight of their kind who survived World War II, where they were used to pull ammunition carts. Krasts adopted Rosie as a rescue when she was three years old. “Studying animal communication helped me to understand how most dog training is intuitive,” Krasts says. “By giving her a structured routine, she learned that I was her best advocate.”
Each week, Krasts and Rosie make the rounds of the intensive care inpatient unit, leaving Rosie’s card, which lists her favorite toy and treats and greatest accomplishment (“Rescuing us”). When the patient’s social worker or chaplain stops in later, the card left on a bedside table can serve as an opportunity for a conversation, such as, “Oh, I see you had a visit from Rosie today,” opening the door for a therapeutic connection that may lead to surprising benefits.
A 2014 study published in the Mount Saint Mary College Journal of Psychology says, “For terminally ill adults, animal assisted therapy is a natural pain management and emotional support…a decrease in loneliness and an increase in socialization with elderly patients caused by the animals address the basic needs of love, belongingness, and self-esteem…”
That’s why Pet Partners created National Therapy Animal Day, April 30, 2017, to recognize all of the exceptional therapy animals who partner with their human companions to bring comfort and healing to those in need. Therapy animals and their handlers can be found helping people of all ages in a variety of different settings including hospitals, pediatric care units, schools and nursing homes. Pet Partners currently has certified more than 15,000 therapy animal teams that made three million visits last year.
Though people of all ages respond to her, Rosie’s biggest fans are children, of course. In addition to the Philip Hulitar Hospice Center, Rosie and Dace are part of the welcoming team for families arriving at Hope Hospice RI’s annual Camp BraveHeart. The two-day summer camp brings children dealing with the loss of a loved one to a fun camp setting. Over the last eleven years, the camp has helped thousands of children cope with grief in a place that is nurturing and safe.
“Rosie helps set the tone,” says Krasts. “Last year, a group of teens who didn’t know each other were hanging out on a rock, each in their own bubble. When Rosie and I came over to say hi, they all circled in close to pet and hug her and began talking to each other. Rosie broke the ice.”
For Krasts, the satisfaction of bringing Rosie into a hospice setting goes beyond what she ever expected. “Families can be scared when their loved one first enters hospice. Rosie and I try to help them feel more reassured, safe and comfortable in their journey. Then I often hear, ‘Hospice is so wonderful – I wish we had started it so much sooner!’”
The story was written by Melissa Weidman, Director of Community Relations and Outreach at HopeHealth, and submitted to What’sUpRhodeIsland.