De Nieuwe Hoeven in Schaijk in Brabant is one of the care homes in the Netherlands where a trial is currently underway with such ‘contact dogs’.
Cuddling in bed
Lieke Meijering knocks carefully on the door and then pokes her head around the door. “Good afternoon Cor, look who I have with me.” Behind the nurse, labradoodle Grietje stumbles into the room of the 95-year-old resident.
Corey is in bed. As soon as he sees Gretel, his eyes light up and he taps the spot next to his pillow invitingly. “You’ve already made room, I see,” says Meijering with a laugh. Gretel jumps onto the bed in one movement.
Care duo nurse and dog
Meijering works in elderly care and together with Grietje forms a so-called ‘care duo’. The labradoodle – a cross between a labrador and a poodle – has been trained as a contact dog and is used in De Nieuwe Hoeven.
The nurse visits a number of residents every day and deploys Grietje in a way that is best for each specific resident. That can be a walk, or playing with a ball. With Cor that is lying quietly on the bed and cuddling.
‘Very brightened up by Gretel’
Cor’s daughter Sandra says that her father has undergone a transformation since Grietje has been on the department. “His partner died of corona 2 years ago. He was unable to say goodbye and that made him very sad.”
Then he suffered a stroke and had to be admitted to De Nieuwe Hoeven. Cor was depressed and had a constant death wish, Sandra knows. “But since Grietje he has brightened up a lot and that also makes care easier.”
Relationship between humans and animals
Meijering can only confirm that: “When I have visited Cor with Grietje, the evening shift also notices it. She has such an incredible effect on him.”
Marie-José Enders, professor by special appointment of Anthrozoology, comes as no surprise. For more than 30 years she has been researching the relationship between humans and animals and its effects on the well-being of vulnerable people, such as elderly people with dementia.
‘No unambiguous communication’
“Animals bring a smile to young and old,” says Enders. “But with older, vulnerable people, it is also very important that they can hug again. At that age, who still hugs you? That touch has an incredibly positive effect on people.”
In addition, communication by animals is different from that by caretakers or family members, the professor explains. “Animals don’t judge. They don’t think: gee, that looks crazy? They are unambiguous in their communication and never have ulterior motives.”
Easier with dog
According to her, vulnerable people sense very well what the ‘real’ intentions are when we ask something. “That there is actually something else under a certain question from us,” she explains.
Meijering also sees this in her work: communication is much easier with Grietje present than without the dog. “You also immediately have a topic to talk about. Residents don’t feel they have to do anything.”
Impressed by instinct
The nurse is impressed by the instinct of the contact dog. “Grietje senses the behavior of residents flawlessly, better than we do,” she admits.
“Recently, Grietje refused to enter a room and she stood on the threshold. Indeed, the resident turned out to be in an aggressive mood. She felt that before anything happened.”
Dog must be ‘everyone’s friend’
Not every dog is suitable to be used in a care institution. The dogs must have a stable and gentle character, be easy to train and preferably also have a cuddly appearance.
They must be real ‘everyone’s friends’. For example, a labradoodle like Grietje: a breed with a soft character and the will to work for a boss, but also with a fine coat to stroke.
Dogs have been used as guide dogs for the blind for decades. People suffering from PTSD also have a so-called buddy dog for support. Professor Enders says that the use of animals in therapy is becoming increasingly known.
“We only see benefits,” she says. “Especially when clients are difficult to reach, such as adults or children with autism. It’s amazing what animals can do what humans can’t.”
“How is Gretel doing?”
Nurse Meijering and contact dog Grietje have been a care duo for 2 years now. “I know her through and through. We were trained together and she lives with me,” says the owner.
Every day she is still impressed by the effect that Grietje has on the residents: “If we don’t remember, sometimes Grietje does know, strangely enough. I really think so often: how does Grietje do it?”