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Dog Offers Comfort To Hospice Patients

For many among the elderly who are no longer able to take care of themselves, hospice workers provide a vital service. They help relieve the stress that comes with caring for a loved one, and for the patient, the provide comfort during the final stages of life. KSMU's Benjamin Fry reports on one hospice helper who has a treatment no human can provide.
Pumpkin, a 7-year-old chow/husky mix, visits Alta Woolery at her home"Are you a good girl pumpkin?"With black fur and a bushy tail, it's easy to see the chow breed in this seven-year-old beauty.As for the mix of husky, that's apparent in her bright blue right eye.Owner Cliff Rawley says Pumpkin got her name from a previous owner."She was so sweet in his mind's eye that he called her his sweet pumpkin pie," Rawley said.Rawley is a Chaplain for Oxford Hospice and visits over a dozen hospice homes across the Ozarks on a regular basis.But lately, he says his ministry has, in his words, "gone to the dogs". That's because Pumpkin has been his co-worker for the past six months.Today, Pumpkin accompanies Rawley as he makes his visits.We arrive at the Springfield home of Alta Woolery, one of Pumpkin's best friends. "How does she look to you, Alta, does she look good today?"Alta suffers from dementia, but still appreciates the touch of Pumpkin's soft fur, and the feeling of her wet muzzle as the dog gently eats a treat out of her hand.Rawley says pets like Pumpkin bring a sensory experience to hospice care that humans simply can't provide."It's wonderful for Pumpkin to be a sweet presence in the room, to be warm, to let Alta, let me put your hand around here Alta, to let her put her hand around her and feel her fur," Rawley said. In-home aid Sandra Woodard says Alta always looks forward to Rawley and Pumpkin's visits."She perks up; she wakes up a little more. Sometimes she gets confused around people, but every time I ask her about Reverend Cliff and Pumpkin she always remembers them," Woodard said.Although she's only been at it for a few months, Pumpkin's no stranger to hospice; her former owner, Mr. Johnson, was a patient.Looking into her friendly multi-colored eyes, it would be easy to believe she's never had any hardship.But the tale of her life before moving to the Ozarks says otherwise."Mr. Johnson had been given the dog by a friend in California, and she had rescued it from the road, someone had dumped it when it was very small," Rawley said.Although she's gentle by nature, Pumpkin has had to learn some manners in order to do her job, including fighting the temptation to eat food off the table.While many pets can get trained for this line of work, Rawley says Pumpkin's demeanor is something that cannot be learned."Some dogs, they're just sweet dogs, but they're rambunctious," Rawley said.As we leave Alta's house, Rawley gives me one last example of why he feels Pumpkin was born to do this.He recalls the time they visited the house of a patient who had only hours left to live.Without being told, Pumpkin went to the man's side."And every now and then he'd pet her and say 'good dog', and his mood was just lifted, it was pretty remarkable. And I didn't take her over there. So she does have the gift," Rawley said.For KSMU News, I'm Benjamin Fry.