If you have visited Care Dimensions’ Kaplan Family Hospice House sometime since 2014, there’s a chance you met or heard about pet therapy dog Tessie, a small Labradoodle that has been comforting patients and families with her loving presence and cute tricks.
Now 13 years old, Tessie has visited hundreds of hospice patients and family members at the Kaplan House, long-term care facilities, patients’ homes, and the Camp Stepping Stones children’s grief camp with her owner, Care Dimensions Volunteer Pat Fleming of Wenham, Mass.
Like other older dogs, Tessie is slowing down. Anticipating Tessie’s retirement, in 2022, Fleming bought and trained a Labradoodle puppy named Keeva so she could continue pet therapy visits for Care Dimensions hospice patients once Tessie was no longer able to accompany her.
Fleming got Tessie as a puppy in 2010. “I thought I might want to do therapy dog volunteer work, but not until I retired,” recalls the former elementary school teacher. She began Tessie’s training with puppy class, followed by advanced manners, agility, and obedience classes, Canine Good Citizen training, and therapy dog training. She passed the certified therapy dog test at an adult day center.
In 2013, Fleming visited a friend who was receiving hospice at the Kaplan House. “I wasn’t sure if I could volunteer in hospice, but when I saw my friend at the Kaplan House, I thought, ‘If I could hold her hand while she was dying, I could do this.’”
The following year, when Fleming was retired and Tessie was four years old and well trained, Fleming took Care Dimensions’ hospice volunteer training. She and Tessie started visiting patients and family members at the Kaplan House.
Fleming remembers being nervous during the first couple of visits but benefiting from her teaching experience. “It reminded me of parent-teacher conferences – you have to keep your demeanor the same with each person you meet. Things may not be going well for one patient, while another may be sitting up and ready to interact.
“It takes a little while to get used to – even for the dog,” Fleming continues. “At first, we just walked around and became familiar with the building. Eventually, we went into patients’ rooms.”
During a typical visit, Fleming asks the patient or family member if they’ve had a pet. “This starts a conversation,” she says. She often places an armchair next to the patient, who can reach and pet Tessie, if able. She places Tessie on the bed only if the patient requests it.
Fleming taught a “Paws Up” command for Tessie to put her front paws on the end of the bed while looking at the patient. She also taught Tessie how to “wave” goodbye with one of her paws. “Everybody likes that, and it’s a great way to end the visit,” Fleming says.
She recalls a memorable time at Kaplan House when a five-year-old girl was visiting her mother, a hospice patient. “I made an obstacle course in the room and stood behind the girl to instruct Tessie. The girl excitedly told her mom she was going to be dog trainer someday. I saw her later at Camp Stepping Stones.”
“Pat and Tessie have brought so much comfort and support to our patients, families, and staff,” notes Fran Clements, Care Dimensions volunteer coordinator at the Kaplan House. “Tessie is a special dog; she just knows what to do. She will be sorely missed and stole a piece of my heart!”
When Tessie was 12, Fleming got Keeva and began preparing her to take over Tessie’s pet therapy role.
“I wanted the transition to happen when Tessie still had some skills and Keeva was trained well enough to begin seeing patients,” Fleming says.
Keeva’s training to date has included puppy class, advanced manners, and agility. She passed the Canine Good Citizen test at nine months old and soon will take the advanced Community Canine test.
Keeva’s introduction to hospice began in the spring of 2023 with visits to empty rooms at the Kaplan House. After Keeva became more familiar with the building, Fleming took her to see a patient.
“Keeva had not seen anyone in bed there before, so she naturally had to check it out,” Fleming recalls. “The patient was in good spirits and got a kick out of meeting Keeva.”
Fleming and Keeva visit Care Dimensions hospice patients at the Kaplan Family Hospice House and at the Herrick House, an assisted living facility in Beverly. Fleming plans to have Keeva become a certified therapy dog, just like Tessie.
“Pat is so committed to the Care Dimensions mission,” Clements says. “How many volunteers would have the foresight to train a new dog as their older dog ages?”
“Pet therapy brings a lot of comfort to hospice patients and their families,” says Fleming. “I feel like I’m making a difference in their lives. Now that Tessie’s role is limited, I look forward to helping more people by visiting them with Keeva.”
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Since 1978, Care Dimensions has provided comprehensive and compassionate care for individuals and families dealing with life-threatening illnesses. As the non-profit leader in advanced illness care, we offer services in over 100 communities in Massachusetts.