25 Sep

Even the most independent of outdoor working dogs enjoys a good scratch behind the ears from his owner/leader but a palliative pet must be willing to accept and enjoy a flood of affection from strangers.  Acceptance of continual petting, patting, stroking and hugging is the bread and butter of a palliative pet.  Further, given the mental and physical states of some hospice residents, over exuberant contact such as tugging, pinching and accidental pain from a wheel chair must not elicit a bite response.

Many outdoor working dogs have been bred for hunting, but even the best field dog has been trained to elicit its innate special character.  Young pointers are taught to point and retrievers are taught to retrieve.  Setters have been bred to have a natural proclivity to hunt birds and puppies which show excitement and interest in birds are described as being “birdy”.  Training setters to become effective hunting companions is often accomplished using domesticated fowl such as pigeons.

It is not surprising then that palliative pets can be trained to maximize their inner ‘care giver’ through ongoing training.  It is rare for humans to engage in intimate physical touch with strangers and so it is not too surprising that dogs commonly reflect this same aversion to unsolicited contact.  But just as humans overcome hesitance to touch through formal societal niceties such as handshakes, some dogs can be taught not only to accept physical contact with strangers but to seek it out.

Entering into the world of palliative care, a pet should come prepared with basic formal obedience training that is exhibited at the highest level of leader control.  Having to repeat commands to an animal is a clear sign that the leader does not have complete control over the pet and that more training is warranted.  Further, the palliative pet must be taught that there are no circumstances wherein a bite response is an acceptable behaviour.  Handling and gentling exercises especially those that eliminate nipping, scratching, clawing, kicking, growling, pawing, jumping up, and all forms of dominant behaviour should be the ongoing focus of palliative pet training.

It is a treat to come home from a long day at work and find the aroma of dinner wafting through the air.  The smell of garlic or the scent of baking bread or perhaps cinnamon rolls is a treat for the senses.  Humans can distinguish these different odours but imagine what the world is like for a dog.  A scent hound like a beagle has millions more scent receptors in their noses than do humans giving them an exquisitely sensitive sense of smell.  We have less than 2% of the number of scent receptors in our noses than does a blood hound and areas in dogs’ brains have evolved to put that exquisitely sensitive nose to good use.  For instance, dogs are now used in cancer detection.  Given this incredibly sensitive capacity for scent it is reasonable to assume that when a dog enters a hospice facility for the first time it is able to detect the unique smell of human bodies in a state of decline.  Further, it may be that although a dog has superior social skills that this new smell may trigger a reaction that initially limits the dog’s engagement with the dying.  Positive reinforcement and motivational training can be used to overcome such initial hesitation.  Negative reinforcement or punishing a dog for refusing to engage in social behaviours in a palliative care environment is contrary to obtaining the optimum outcome you seek.  Often a dog’s negative response to new situations is due to inappropriate or limited instruction.  Simply assuming a dog will respond the same way in all environments to all people is erroneous.

A dog that is not engaging normally in this new environment does not have “a behaviour problem”.  Nor should one think that when one is training the animal that one should be training solely to avoid “behaviour problems”.  Modern training methods rely on reinforcing positive responses.  For instance, rather than punishing a puppy for peeing on the carpet, modern training focuses on where the puppy should pee, reward him for peeing there, providing consistent positive support and guidance.  Within a short time the puppy will seek out the positive responses and ignore opportunities to pee on the carpet where there is no positive response given.  Urination is a normal body function and the only thing wrong about the location is a human imposed restriction that takes some time for an animal of limited intelligence to understand and then act upon accordingly – likewise for palliative social interactions.  Expectations of humans must be introduced to the dog in a positive way so that the animal enjoys the environment.  Reflecting back on parent directed childhood visits to a dull and unengaged relative it was not surprising that such interactions resulted in equally unengaged responses from myself and my siblings.  Regardless of the fact that people are dying in a hospice facility, it is vital that the leader make the environment enjoyable, supportive and engaging to the palliative pet as no amount of “correction” will instill the social responses the owner/leader is seeking.

Some breeds have only limited social behaviours encoded in their DNA and in such cases these animals have limited use as palliative pets.  Further, within breeds individual animals may be more or less suited for palliative environments.

The American Temperament Test Society, Inc. (ATTS) is a U.S. based not-for-profit organization founded in1977 that promotes uniform temperament evaluation of purebred and spayed/neutered mixed-breed dogs.  In pursuit of their motto “a sound mind in a sound body”, certified ATTS testers have evaluated more than 30,000 canines.  Upon successful completion of the pass/fail test, an animal is awarded certification. Many breeders utilize these evaluations as a fundamental tool in establishing their breed lines. The minimum age for the ATTS to evaluate a dog is 18 months.

If an owner/leader is wishing to select a puppy that when grown will be suitable for volunteering in palliative care environments, the process of determining suitability is less clear or rubust.  Given the ATTS age limit, pet owners/leaders must look elsewhere for guidance.

Jack and Wendy Volhard  are renowned for their expertise in assessing the conformation and behavior of canines.  With 13 books to their credit and numerous articles and videos based on a motivational-based training methodology they have created an effective and simple puppy evaluation tool.  The Volhard Puppy Aptitude Test for prospective owners is used to assess the following behaviours which then lead to an overall score.  Social Attraction, Following, Restraint, Social Dominance, Elevation, Retrieving, Touch Sensitivity,  Sound Sensitivity, Sight Sensitivity, Startle response to a strange object are the ten categories used and ranked by an unbiased party in a surrounding unfamiliar to the animal.  An owner wishing to select a puppy for palliative environments may find this or similar evaluation tools of use in the selection process.

Please feel free to comment below!


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