SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ - Rio, Atlas, Coco and Karl are a special breed of volunteer at the Center for Hope Hospice & Palliative Care. The canines bring their comforting presence and the benefits of animal therapy to patients and their loved ones at both of the Center’s two residences—Peggy’s House in Scotch Plains and Father Hudson House in Elizabeth—as well as enhance morale for staff members there.

Animal therapy is common in various healthcare environments but it is unusual to bring canine volunteers into a hospice residence. As part of its holistic approach to hospice care and palliative pain management, the Center for Hope Hospice incorporates many therapeutic modalities to provide comfort for those in its care, including pet therapy.

Patients, their loved ones and employees at the Center look forward to visits from:

Sign Up for E-News

  • Rio, a Belgian Teruven from Warren, who is also a member of Dog Scouts of America, an AKC Canine Good Citizen and has a resume of other skills.
  • Atlas, an AKC champion Newfoundland from Fanwood, certified by Therapy Dogs International. He visits Father Hudson House twice a month with owner Karin Brystol. Brystol’s father received hospice care and she knows firsthand the positive effect canine therapy can have on people at the end of their lives.
  • Coco, a chocolate Labrador retriever from Manville. She usually visits Father Hudson House every Tuesday (with an occasional visit to Peggy’s House) with owner Tracy Rydzy, who is on staff at the Center. An emotional support dog, Coco provides a comforting presence, including for people in the Center’s bereavement group.
  • Karl, a six-month-old German shepherd puppy from Scotch Plains started to visit this past winter, coming to work every Wednesday with owner Nancy Rager, RN, the administrator for Center for Hope Hospice. Ragerhad two other canine volunteers who spent years bringing joy and comfort to patients and families.

Pet therapy and interaction with gentle, friendly pets have been shown to:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Elevate mood, have a calming effect
  • Reduce anxiety or depression
  • Diminish physical pain
  • Increase socialization and decrease feelings of isolation

The pups make regular visits with their owners, who agree that the visits are therapeutic and the benefits apparent for everyone who interacts with them.

Rio’s owner Joan Stiener knew of the Center through a friend whose family members received care there and she’d always heard such positive feedback about it. Now she’s getting positive feedback about Rio’s visits.

“When Rio walks in, people see him and melt. Those who have had pets before are reminded of that happiness and others, who are initially intimidated, warm up to Rio and want to pet him. It’s very joyful to see how they interact with him,” said Stiener, who added that patients’ family members come in to pet and play with him. “It really means a lot to do this,” she said.

Rydzy, Coco’s owner, said it is uncanny how the dog intuits when someone needs a visit, often pulling her into a room to visit certain patients. “Coco instinctively knows to go to certain patients or family members who need comforting,” she noted, “and at the bereavement group, just having the dog there creates a sense of calm.” Coco’s calming effect extends beyond the bereavement group.  

“I see patients with unstable moods or who are depressed but they forget all about it when she’s there. Petting a dog lowers stress and blood pressure and I can see the sense of happiness Coco brings to people at the Center,” said Rydzy.

Atlas’s owner, Brystol agrees. “It’s very rewarding to see the smiles on faces when Atlas comes by. He loves to be petted and there are people who seek him out to do just that.”

Rager has been bringing dogs to the Center for Hope Hospice since 2007—first Winston, then Wes and now Karl, who she says is showing great promise as a pet therapy volunteer.

“Not every dog is good at this but Karl is so attentive to people’s needs and so mature when it comes to dealing with patients,” she said. “He’s very gentle with the residents, letting them pet him and licking their hands. Interacting with him takes residents out of their moments of pain.” Rager added that Karl is helping families as well. “They line up outside my office door on Wednesdays to see Karl and have quiet time with him.”

Center for Hope Hospice (Center for Hope) is a non-profit, community based organization that provides terminally ill patients with hospice care, and their families or loved ones with physical, emotional, and spiritual support during their time of need. It is one of New Jersey’s only independent, non-profit, community-based hospice organizations. Center for Hope offeris services at its two residences -- Father Hudson House in Elizabeth and Peggy’s House in Scotch Plains -- as well as in other healthcare settings or patients’ homes. For more information about palliative care or to ask about volunteer opportunities, visit www.cfhh.org or call (908) 889-7780.

TAPintoSPF.net is Scotch Plains-Fanwood’s only free daily paper. Sign up for our daily eNews and follow us on Facebook and twitter @SPF_TAP. Download the free TAPinto App for iPhone or Android.