Canines Just in Time

Therapy dogs coming to the rescue at the VNA Philadelphia Hospice.

Doggie dearth. Canine decline. Whatever you call it, the patients at the VNA Philadelphia Hospice (VNAPH) haven’t seen a cheerful pup since 2016.

Back then Stella, an intuitive, sweet Doberman mix, and Ni-Chin, a Japanese Chin, who often wore costumes and rode in a Santa sleigh during the holidays, used to go room to room in the 15-bed inpatient unit, bringing smiles to the patients and the staff.

The halls haven’t been the same since and, even with all the progressive therapies at VNAPH’s disposal, it turns out it’s impossible to replace a furry greeting.

Thankfully, the wait is almost over and yelp is on the way. Vegas, a pitbull mix, and Mae Belle, a Treeing Walker Coonhound, visited VNAPH earlier this month with Alicia and Gene Harantschuk of Comfort Caring Canines to volunteer their services.

The pups hadn’t been in the building two minutes before staff members began popping up from their desks and queueing up in the hallway outside the office of Terry Scott, the Manager of the Volunteer program at VNAPH.

Terry laughed when she heard about the groupies outside her door – having been in dog therapy for many years, she knows the magic dogs bring to a hospice setting. “Everybody understands how great dogs are for patients but they’re crucial too for our caregivers. There’s a lot of loss in our inpatient unit and profound emotions among patients and family members. The energy can be overwhelming. When a dog arrives, our people just light up. It’s healing.”

She’s such a believer in therapy dogs that she even volunteered one of her own when she worked at Lehigh Valley Hospice in 1994. “He was one of 22 dogs that were evaluated to be in the program. Many didn’t make the cut, including mine. He would’ve made a great therapy dog, had a wonderful temperament, but he was terrified of wheelchairs. Just couldn’t get over it. That’s why I like to expose therapy dogs to our inpatient unit first to get a sense of how they react. Some of the equipment might spook them.”

Fortunately, Vegas and Mae Belle are pros. Vegas, with over 250 visits under his collar, is the more experienced of the two (Mae Belle’s had “only” 75 visits) but Mae Belle is more serene. “She’s very gentle” says Alicia, “she’ll hop right up on a couch next to a patient and lie there all day.” “Almost like a greyhound,” adds Gene.

Both dogs are veterans of everything from nursing homes to college campuses (“de-stressing” sessions for test weary students), to kids’ reading classes (turns out dogs love to hear people’s voices and aren’t sticklers for grammar, which helps kids read aloud with confidence).

The variety of experience is a key part of therapy dog training for Alicia and Gene. “All our dogs get trained at their own pace, using different pieces of equipment and in different situations. Regardless of the setting, we don’t want to stress them out. It’s about them having fun – so all of our reinforcement is positive. We never want to force anything.”

Which is exactly the way Terry prefers it – “we look at the dog’s demeanor and the way they interact with the handler. When I was at Grand View Hospital, I had to reject one volunteer because the relationship with the dog was a bad one. She wasn’t positive and the dog wasn’t under control. I just couldn’t believe he was a therapy dog.”

As she spoke, Vegas wagged contentedly under Gene’s chair as nurses gathered near the door. “You can never have too many good therapy dogs,” she said. “There’s always someone in need.”

Paws for the Cause
Interested in therapy dog training? If you’d like to enroll your promising pup, contact Alicia at Comfort Caring Canines ( or Leigh Siegfried at Opportunity Barks (888-672-2757 or

If you already have a therapy dog, consider becoming a volunteer at the VNAPH. Shifts are flexible and the gratitude from patients and caregivers runs deep. Contact Terry Scott at 215-581-2360 or tscott (at) for enrollment info.


Alicia, Gene, and the team have completed the training course and will be visiting the inpatient unit at VNAPH in a few weeks. BONUS, they’ve found another volunteer to join Vegas and Mae Belle. Ladies and Gentlemen, here’s Dillon.

Alicia gives us some details about Dillon —

Dillon was part of CCC’s first evaluation at Opportunity Barks, passing on 1/28/17.  While he has only just passed and completed a dozen official visits, he has been making unofficial visits (facility approved) since he was eight months hold,  His first call to action was with a patient we had been visiting for years.  She was in the final stages of life and we needed a small dog for the job.  He spent time with her during her final three days.  People gathered to see him sitting next to her for up to 30 minutes with very little movement.  During one visit, she managed to pull her arm from under the blanket and cradle him.  If ever a dog was meant to do this, it is Dillon.”