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Hos-Pets: A team of healing pooches

The unconditional love and acceptance provided by pets is priceless medicine

Story by Eddy Hoyle + Photos by Lee Steinberg

Did you know that the simple act of petting a dog can help lower blood pressure, alleviate stress, reduce grief and depression, decrease loneliness and isolation, and reduce boredom? Interacting with animals releases endorphins in your brain that produce a calming effect. This helps alleviate pain and improve your overall mental state. Pet-assisted therapy also promotes physical movement.

Spending time with man’s best friend even can help improve one’s interactions with others and increase verbal communication. There is a strong bond between animals and people. Animals are accepting, non-threatening and non-judgmental, making it easier for people to open up.

HCL’s Director of Community Relations Darlene Schuetz moved to the Lowcountry in 2008 with her great Dane, Max, to live with her parents, who were aging. “They were so excited about getting a dog,” she said. “They told everyone they were getting a dog, but never even mentioned that their daughter was moving in.” She explained that her parents had decided not to get a dog of their own because they felt that the dog would probably outlive them and it wouldn’t be fair to the dog.

In 2008, Hospice Care of the Lowcountry (HCL) expanded its services by adding Hos-Pets, a volunteer pet therapy program that aims to bring these positive effects to the lives of those who are ill, grieving or withdrawn.”

“Having a dog in the house definitely improved Mom’s mobility, and Dad would walk Max five miles every day and it really improved his socialization. Neighbors would tell me, ‘We never knew how funny and social your Dad is.’ When he walked Max, cars would stop and yell out, ‘Beautiful!’ Then Dad would joke with everyone saying, ‘I never knew how attractive I am.’”

Schuetz realized how much her parents benefitted from having Max around, and started asking people if there were any dog therapy programs in the area similar to programs in California. Someone suggested she call dog trainer Abby Bird whose immediate response was, “I have been waiting forever for someone to help me start a dog therapy program!” It soon became a reality. “Abby had the knowledge and I had the desire,” Schuetz said. “Since then Abby really has grown the program through her work as a dog trainer. She should definitely get the credit she deserves.”

Bird works with HCL to ensure that the Hos-Pets are properly trained to participate in this program, and there are currently more than 40 volunteers (and their certified Canine Good Citizen Dogs) who belong to Hos-Pets. Last year Schuetz got her 3-year-old great Dane, Cosgrove, certified to participate in Hos-Pets. This four-legged army routinely visits 15 care facilities. They also go into patients’ homes who request therapy dogs.

Whether in a private residence or a residential facility, pet therapy creates an opportunity for socialization between patients and volunteers. Common interest in the animal also can be used to establish open lines of communication between patients, family members and staff.

John Hutchinson discovered Hos-Pets in 2008 when he brought his own Golden Retriever, Lexi, to visit his parents who were living at Bloom Assisted Living and Memory Care. “When I took Lexi into the facility to visit, I got amazing reactions from the residents. They simply loved her.” Then someone told him about Hos-Pets and he contacted trainer Abby Bird.

Over the last 11 years, Hutchinson has trained three Goldens as Hos-Pets: Lexi, Wendy and Patton, but Wendy is the only dog still participating. “Lexi was a perfect therapy dog and Patton was just too big. Wendy is still a Hos-Pet and we try to make two or three visits a week.”

Hutchinson was awarded the 2018 Hos-Pet Volunteer of the Year at HCL. “I may be the volunteer of the year,” he said, “but Wendy is the real superstar.” Hutchinson is now in the process of training Ellie, a Golden Retriever who just happens to be Wendy’s great-great granddaughter, and he is excited to add her as new member of the Hos-Pets team.

Harley with Pat Cameron ©ARNO DIMMLING

Put your dog to work

Hos-Pets is Hospice Care of the Lowcountry’s volunteer pet therapy program. Animal lovers who might be interested in volunteering with their favorite pooch can call 843-706-2296 for more information.