Patients receive medical care, attention, counseling and visits from a four-legged friend with Hospice of the Bluegrass in Northern Kentucky. Kimberly Heestand, coordinator of volunteer services at the nonprofit end-of-life organization, started the HosPET program as a way to engage patients with the help of volunteers and their dogs. “Pets are such a vital part of life for so many people,” she says. “Our Alzheimer’s patients especially come alive when they see the animals.” 

Heestand, who came to Hospice of the Bluegrass two years ago, says she got the idea from a pet therapy specialist that used to work with her. When she and her dog, Bud White, left shortly after Heestand’s arrival, she decided to add pet therapy to her list of volunteer opportunities, which also includes transportation, flower delivery, beautician services and musicians. “It’s very small,” she says of her newest program. “I have one volunteer right now.”

That volunteer is Doug Yerkes and his labradoodle, Ebony. “The children love to see her,” says Heestand. “It’s even good for the caregivers. They need a little bit of happiness.” 

Ebony has been certified by Therapy Dogs International, one of several organizations that registers and tests dogs and their trainers. The American Kennel Club has a similar program, called the Canine Good Citizen Program. Dogs that are certified through this program must pass a 10-step test, which focuses on good manners and obedience. 

Certifications like these are a must for Heestand’s volunteers to ensure that the dogs behave appropriately around the patients. 

“We have to be careful and make sure we are bringing the right kind of pets,” she says. As a bonus, many of these certification programs also provide insurance to protect owners from unexpected bad behavior like biting. 

The final requirements for owners wishing to volunteer with HosPET are that dogs must have a letter of recommendation from their veterinarians and they must be up to date on their shots. After a short interview, dogs are ready to interact with patients in any of the six counties covered by the Northern Kentucky office. 

The challenge with recruiting volunteers, says Heestand, is the certification requirement. “I would really love to find a [trainer] that would be willing to come to Northern Kentucky and offer a discount to a group of dogs and do the training here,” she says.

And while Heestand would eventually like to have around six dogs and handlers volunteering with the program, Ebony is single-pawedly making the rounds at the Northern Kentucky locations. “We rely so much on people in the community,” says Heestand, “it’s just another form of support. It’s a gift.” 

Ebony, currently on maternity leave, will be back at Hospice of the Bluegrass in August. Meanwhile, Heestand encourages people to consider volunteering their time and their even-tempered pets for the HosPET program.