First published in PeEmail, the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Canine Companions for Independence newsletter, April 2019
Colorado’s Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) village has known Elizabeth Holman first as a puppy raiser, then as a graduate team — first with facility dog Waffle, and now with Tootsie. Professionally, however, she’s Dr. Elizabeth Holman, Palliative Care Psychologist for the Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center. I was fortunate to be able to attend an on-line class she gave this month for psychologists on “Facility Dog 101: Working with a Highly Trained Therapy Dog from Beginning to End.”
CCI defines facility dogs as “an expertly trained working dog partnered with a handler to achieve specific goals in the handler’s professional role.” For Elizabeth, having a dog that had been bred and trained to be a facility dog, and had been matched specifically to the needs of her organization, was vital.
Elizabeth laid out some of the factors that therapists and their organizations need to consider before getting a facility dog. Therapists need to have jobs which allow control over their time. The institutions must put in place plans which address staff and clients’ concerns surrounding cleanliness, allergies, phobias, and cultural issues. Then, once the facility dog arrives, the handler must address one of the hardest challenges — managing the other humans on staff! Because the dog becomes part of the community, tending to those relationships becomes a major part of the handler’s job.
Waffle’s sudden death in October of 2017 gave Elizabeth an unexpected expertise in the mourning surrounding the loss of a beloved facility dog. Waffle’s death not only impacted Elizabeth as the handler, it also affected the veterans who were her clients — and it deeply affected the staff at the Veterans Administration, from the janitors to the managers. Elizabeth realized that, for both the clients and staff, clear communication was critical. In the midst of a shared loss, roles sometimes reversed, and the clients who Elizabeth cared for instead took care of her. Holding a memorial service for Waffle helped managed the grief process by providing a time to say goodbye and celebrate her role in the community.
Pressure to get a new dog came quickly, far too quickly. However, Elizabeth said that there are a number of questions for therapists to consider before moving forward. They need to re-assess their client base and the work setting for any changes that have occurred over time. They need to think about what the previous animal did, or did not do, that would be helpful in a successor. And all of this, Elizabeth noted, must be done while allowing space to miss the former partner while opening up the heart to a new one. Elizabeth’s current facility dog Tootsie has brought her own personality and unique set of skills to their work with the VA.
In an article for the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine on lessons from the loss of a facility dog, Elizabeth wrote: “When people showed their hearts to Waffle, myteam and I got to see them too. On our best days, Waffle did what only she could do, so that I could do what only I can do.The magic of the working dog team is that the connection withthe dog connects the humans as well.”