A new friend has been making Kline Hospice House a warmer place to be for patients, their loved ones and staff
His name is “Steeler” and he is a 10-month-old goldendoodle puppy. He is still in training, but has started making hospice visits with his trainer and main handler.
Laurel Cucchi, the executive director of Hospice of Frederick County, and Doug Stauffer, the president of Stauffer Funeral Homes and Hospice board member, said getting Steeler was a joint venture. It all started about a year and a half ago when the funeral home brought on Steeler’s brother, ironically named “Raven.”
The idea to get Raven was initially a bit of a gamble but Stauffer said he knew it paid off when the dog went to an upset child during a funeral and never left the child’s side. Dogs are a common denominator among many people, and having Raven on hand usually made them smile, even during tough and confusing times.
Since Raven was doing so well at the funeral home, Stauffer and his daughter-in-law, Courtney, assisted Cucchi in getting Steeler from the same Alabama breeder. The main difference between the two dogs is that Steeler is considered miniature, so he’ll be able to be on patients’ beds.
Both dogs are being trained by Sit Means Sit Dog Training of Frederick. Stauffer’s is paying for all of Steeler’s expenses and Greenbriar Veterinary Hospital is donating its services for health care.
Steeler has been with Hospice since May and is being fostered by an employee who lives near the hospice house in Mount Airy. The plan is for him to spend time with hospice patients, in addition to people in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and Frederick Memorial Hospital.
Even early in his training, Cucchi said patients have been responding well to him. A nearly comatose patient moved his hand for the first time in a while when he felt Steeler. Another patient laughed when he noticed Steeler seemed drawn to his dentures, Cucchi said.
“He’s adorable and loving and quickly became a mascot for our office,” she said.
Sarah Simpson has been training him, mostly on being secure, comfortable, obedient and having a calm demeanor. She’s also teaching him a few tricks to provide much needed light moments.
“He’s paid with praise and love, which is good for his job because all people will want to do is love him,” Simpson said.
When she first started working with Steeler, Simpson said he was insecure and fearful about being away from his handlers. Simpson has been getting him to the point where he can be with a patient and not want to go back to her. She’s also making sure he can handle things like loud coughing, skin conditions and oxygen tanks without getting spooked and barking.
Having Steeler with patients and their families has been beneficial in providing both comfort and a distraction, Cucchi said.
“It’s a non-chemical way to actually soothe the patient, reduce anxiety and give more endorphins to feel more at ease,” she said. “It’s a positive distraction. You can’t live in the pain of watching someone you love die or the pain of your grief 24/7.”
Recently, a patient’s wife went to see Steeler before leaving Hospice House, just so she could spend a moment with him.
Steeler has also been good for Hospice employees, whose job can be very emotionally trying, especially when young people are patients, Cucchi said.
The puppy will have about six months of consistent training, but Simpson said she will stick around for as long as she’s needed to offer support.
“With him and Raven, they’re in a special kind of job, so I’m here as long as I need to be,” she said.