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Baxter, the Therapy Dog, Brings Love to People During Last Days of Life

Encore broadcast that originally aired January 13, 2009

Audio

Aired 4/19/09

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): We all know that our pet dogs and cats can cheer us up and make a bad day feel a little better but apparently pets can do a lot more than that. When it comes to a dog named Baxter and other therapy dogs used by hospitals and hospice facilities, these animals can bring joy and peace to patients suffering with life-threatening or terminal illnesses. Well find out how dogs are used to provide therapy and about the stories of patients who've been helped by these animals but first we'll meet Baxter and his human parents who are in the studio today. Melissa Joseph is the author of the new book, "Moments with Baxter: Comfort and Love from the World's Best Therapy Dog." Her husband Dennis, who took the pictures that are featured in the book is in the studio, as well as Baxter himself. So, first of all, Melissa, since our audience can't see Baxter, can you describe him for us and his little vehicle?

MELISSA JOSEPH (Author/Therapy Dog Owner): You know, I can do that. There is a story in the book of a blind man who asks his wife could he – could she please tell him what Baxter looks like. And she describes him in the story in the book, and the title is 'The Blind Can See.' But I will do it for you; I just wanted to say that. Baxter is a cross between a human and a teddy bear, and he has eyes that – he looks like he's just had tattoo eyeliner around his eyes, and he actually looks like he's had a little bit of plastic surgery as well because his face, though he's almost 19, looks like a puppy. And unfortunately, his body from the neck down looks like I forgot to put sunblock on him and he's lost most of his hair. And the biggest thrill of Baxter is that his heart starts at the tip of his head and goes all the way to his tail.

CAVANAUGH: Now right now, as we're sitting here, he is reclining in what I described as a red wagon but it's really more like a rolling day bed.

JOSEPH: Oh, I think it's more like a throne.

CAVANAUGH: Well, tell me, Melissa, how did all of this get started? First of all, where did Baxter come from?

JOSEPH: Baxter is a southerner. He has a twang to his bark. And he was born and partially reared in Jackson, Mississippi. And he was going to be euthanized because the people who had him couldn't afford to take care of his medical problems. And a woman who rescues dogs contacted me and said I think you might want to see this little dog. And so she brought him to me and six weeks later we were friends.

CAVANAUGH: What kind of a – what breed is he?

JOSEPH: I tell people when they ask me that, just because I'm a southerner, oh he's a luv breed. And we spell that l-u-v. But he's really part Golden Retriever, part Chow. And he has a mottled purple tongue and, again, that teddy bear face, but he has the spirit and the intelligence of a Golden Retriever.

CAVANAUGH: Now when Baxter was a puppy, was he immediately a friendly kind of dog? Or did it take him some time to get comfortable with people?

JOSEPH: Well, I rescued him and he was two years old, so I don't know about…

CAVANAUGH: Oh.

JOSEPH: …his puppyhood. But I know that when I did, you know, first have an interface with him, it took several weeks to make pals with him. So something had happened to him that wasn't appropriate.

CAVANAUGH: And you never found out what.

JOSEPH: No, I don't know specifically what happened, but I'm – because he was so afraid of objects like a broom and a vacuum cleaner and, you know, any loud noises—a book would drop off the table and he would cower and go in the corner—I knew something strange had happened to him.

CAVANAUGH: But you coaxed him out of that.

JOSEPH: Yeah, I loved him out of that.

CAVANAUGH: Now when did this idea start to come to both you and Dennis that you started volunteering with Baxter at San Diego Hospice?

JOSEPH: Well, when we started volunteering there, we were both, I think, completely almost shocked at the magic that Baxter brought to people's lives, not just the patients who were weeks away from their death but the family and friends of the patients, and the staff as well. And so we would come home and on the way home from our volunteering, and we would be there for many hours at a time, several days a week, we would kind of toss around these profound things that would happen to us. It would be maybe someone on their deathbed who said something very profound about life itself, or a family member who was so deeply touched by something that Baxter did, and so I started writing the stories in a journal, you know, day after day, week after week, month after month, and after about five years I got this collection of stories and so we took those stories and put them into a book format and, hence, "Moments with Baxter."

CAVANAUGH: And, I must say, the book is – not only is it filled with stories like that but the most beautiful photographs that is – that Dennis took of Baxter and the various friends that he's made in the hospice. Now even as wonderful a dog as Baxter is, he needed some training, didn't he, to become a therapy dog?

JOSEPH: Most dogs – There's a section in the book where you can learn how to get your dog trained and certified but most dogs are professionally trained by someone who is in that field. Baxter is a natural. He didn't have to be professionally trained. For some reason, after many, many years of our being together and my taking care of him and dragging him around in my crazy life, he learned how to be patient, reliable and courageous. And I think that that and a sense of – a sensitivity is really what has made him the world's greatest therapy dog.

CAVANAUGH: Now, in the book, you relate some stories about how when Baxter is first introduced into a room and there's a patient there, perhaps there isn't an immediate connection but how do you make that connection to get Baxter next to the patient so that that sort of therapy can begin?

JOSEPH: Well, you know, first it's really important to get to their level so maybe I'll pull up a chair or lean over and just say, you know, I have this little doggie here and he's very special, and he's a lot older than you. And that really helps. And he's got a lot of problems, he's got a lot of medical problems. And, you know, there was one patient, for instance, I said, I'll bet you're on blood pressure medication and he said, I am. And I said, what are you on? I'll bet you're on amlodipine. And he said, I am. I said, do you think you could spare a pill for Baxter, we're running low on medication. And right then and there we established some kind of connection and at that point, it was – that's when I transferred Baxter from his little bed, his throne, to the patient's bed. And I'll say something like, you know, could you possibly move over a little bit so we can – You know, I'll be funny and just very interesting how humor helps me move myself and Baxter into a person's sphere.

CAVANAUGH: You know, I had the privilege of actually having Baxter sit on my lap earlier this morning. And he is the most serene and joyous animal and he just – he just sort of communicates with you silently when he's sitting on you. And I must say, too, Melissa, I – I've never actually had – seen a dog quite this old.

JOSEPH: Yeah, Baxter will be 19 on March 23rd, and he really is a bit compromised. He can't walk very well anymore but he is swimming three days a week and he doesn't just do the dog paddle, he really does the freestyle. He doesn't do the individual medley but he can definitely do a nice job of swimming for 30 minutes, and I think that's truly a big piece of his health.

CAVANAUGH: And do you get the sense that Baxter enjoys doing this? Going to the hospice and meeting all these new people?

JOSEPH: I get the impression that all Baxter is here for is to give love. And every time he's with a patient, he's given an extra heartbeat.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. All right then. We have another guest on the line. Noreen Carrington, is Director of Volunteer Resources at San Diego Hospice, and she is here to tell us about – a little bit more about Baxter and therapy dogs in general. Noreen, hello.

NOREEN CARRINGTON (Director, Volunteer Resources, San Diego Hospice): Hello. How are you?

CAVANAUGH: I’m doing very well.

CARRINGTON: Good. Nice to be on with you today.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you. Can you tell us a bit about what the San Diego Hospice does and who it serves?

CARRINGTON: Yeah, absolutely. First of all, just in general, when you're talking about hospice, it's really a philosophy of care that uses a team approach when we care for patients who are living with that life limiting illness. And the care focuses on the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the patients and their family members and is usually provided in the patient's home or wherever the patient resides. So locally here, San Diego Hospice and the Institute for Palliative Medicine, we're proud to say that we've grown into one of the ten largest not-for-profit hospice programs in the nation and we're recognized as a leader in the relief of suffering. And it's important to note that San Diego Hospice provides our services throughout the entire county. It's a comprehensive care that is provided to adults and children who are living with a life limiting illness and, once again, that is where the patient lives, so whether that's in their home, a skilled nursing facility, or in our own in-patient centers.

CAVANAUGH: And, Noreen, what kind of impact does a visit from a therapy dog like Baxter have on patients who are in hospice care?

CARRINGTON: Well, as you might imagine, many, many patients who are at the end of their life have had lots of losses including independence, mobility, and so therefore can become sort of isolated. And so having a dog like Baxter, and especially Baxter, as you have seen how serene he is, having them visit can really open up some avenues that no other contact can. For instance, that patient can pet Baxter and have him – have Baxter lay with them and, therefore, be giving back. Rather than being nurtured and taken care of, they can nurture and take care of. It also, I think, opens up a lot of communication. Sometimes people can talk to a dog better than they can talk to their family members or hospice personnel. But once again, once they've talk to the dog, then they're more open to maybe talking with their family members once they've sort of put the idea out there. So it really can help in a lot of different ways.

CAVANAUGH: And, Noreen, besides Baxter there are other therapy dogs? Or are they all dogs? Or do you have other kind of animals there, too?

CARRINGTON: Right. Currently, we have 5 therapy dogs that visit our patients in our in-patient centers and in the patients' homes. And we also use, at our camp here in San Diego, our camp for bereaved children that we hold once a year, we also use horses. So we use therapy horses as a way for the children to get in touch with their own feelings and as they interact with the horses, the horses mimic what the child is feeling. So it's been a really interesting experience.

CAVANAUGH: You know, I'm just looking at Baxter and he is paying attention.

CARRINGTON: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: He's not saying too much but he is paying attention to what we're talking about.

CARRINGTON: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: And Melissa, I wonder, do you have a – How do you know that you've actually made someone feel better? Is it because – what they say? Or how they look? Or both?

JOSEPH: I think it just depends. Recently Baxter was in bed with a woman and she told the nurse after we left that her pain level went from a 8 to a zero. So we didn't actually hear her say that; it was the nurse who asked her that question. A lot of times, you can see a patient will be – have a lot of anxiety and they will not be able to be still and we will put Baxter in bed with that patient and all of a sudden they have refocused what energy they have onto Baxter and for that moment, they have almost forgotten about their own current state of being and so they become calm without some kind of drug needed. So Baxter himself can have a palliative effect.

CAVANAUGH: And I must admit that Baxter just smells so wonderful. How do you do that?

JOSEPH: Well, we can share with you our array of aroma therapy spritzers if you'd like. We have quite a selection. We just, you know, he just – but he just – he uses a lot of lavender because the aroma therapist at hospice has suggested that lavender's a very calming scent for patients and it's not offense to a lot of patients because certain smells can really disturb certain patients.

CAVANAUGH: And you were describing to me that Baxter wears some jewelry.

JOSEPH: Oh, yeah, he really does. He has all kinds of little charms around his neck but my favorite is I have his little name with little cubes with, you know, B-a-x-t-e-r spelled out and then above that I have 'love.' And then he has, you know, 'good dog' and 'best friend' and there's one – and 'angel.' And there's one he doesn't have on today but I typically put it on and it's called 'stud.' I don't want Baxter to feel that he's lost anything in life. I want him to feel like he still has it going on, you know?

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, and he also has a really good vest. You say he earned that vest.

JOSEPH: Well, he passed the test and, as I told you, it's kind of like an iron man for dogs. And Therapy Dogs International certified Baxter and he's very proud to wear that vest because he had to remain neutral in some very difficult situations where he was – it's almost like they were accosting him, so to speak, and he never once reacted. And he's never once reacted with any patient or family member.

CAVANAUGH: Noreen, if somebody wants to volunteer their dog at the hospice, what do they need to do to get started?

CARRINGTON: Oh, we would love to have people to work with us with their dogs or volunteers in general. And to get started, they just need to make a phone call and they can call 619-688-1600 or they could visit us on the web and that's www.sdhospice.org. And it's a process whereby for the dogs go through the certification that Melissa's talked about that Baxter went through and then we have training and support for our volunteers.

CAVANAUGH: And you can find that number and that website link at KPBS.org/TheseDays. And what other opportunities are available to people who want to volunteer at the hospice?

CARRINGTON: Well, we have a great deal of opportunities. One, people can work with patients and without dogs, and go visit our patients and give them a break, bring the outside in. Give the caregivers a break, that kind of thing. They can also work in non-patient related ways, working in a fundraising situation, doing community outreach, office support, and, once again, if they just call that number or visit us on the web, it's a very easy process. And we do have a training for our patient care volunteers coming up next week and then again in March, so we would love to have everyone.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Melissa, I want to ask you this question. I think I have a pretty fair idea of what – how you're going to answer but what kind of impact has Baxter had on your lives? You and Dennis?

JOSEPH: Well, number one, I wouldn't be on the radio without Baxter. And I would not have learned how valuable, or maybe relearned, how valuable moments are and that that is all we have. And the little things in life, what time you get there, five minutes late, what you're dressed – not dressed, all those little things truly do not matter. It's how you treat other people and how other people treat you. And I think Baxter, because he's always gentle and kind and loving, keeps reminding me that that's all that matters.

CAVANAUGH: And did that inspire you to write this book?

JOSEPH: Oh, his magic with people is what inspired me to write this book.

CAVANAUGH: And I understand that all the proceeds will go to charity?

JOSEPH: All the…

CAVANAUGH: Can you tell us about that?

JOSEPH: Yeah. All the procee – having worked at the in-patient care center at San Diego Hospice and Institute for Palliative Medicine, when you walk in those doors, you see little angel wings on people's backs. There's no one I've met there who truly is not a gift, in and of themselves. And I decided that this project needed to be about that facility. It is such a beautiful, special place and people give and give and give, and I wanted to give back. And that was my way to give back, so I'm hoping to donate all the proceeds from the sale of the book back to the in-patient care center at San Diego Hospice for whatever their current needs are there at that facility.

CAVANAUGH: And speaking of the patients at the hospice, tell us the story of the woman who wanted to watch a movie with Baxter.

JOSEPH: Oh, there's a – one of the first stories is 'Fifteen – 'A Fifteen Minute Limit.' But Mo Thorn, her – she told us that her last dying wish was to go see the latest Harry Potter film. And she did not think that was going to be possible and we thought – at hospice, especially, San Diego Hospice, anything is possible. They will do anything to help the patient. And so with that, some arrangements were made. We went to the theater to make sure that Baxter could go into the theater with her. And he accompanied her to see the last Harry Potter film and she couldn't have been any more ecstatic at that moment with Baxter seeing that movie. And she subsequently died with Baxter in bed with her at San Diego Hospice and Institute for Palliative Medicine.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, I want to just end this with – I want to hear your plans for Baxter's 20th birthday.

JOSEPH: Well, here's the deal. I told Baxter that he couldn't have a birthday until he turned 20. And I thought when he turns 20, that the most appropriate place for him to have a birthday party—and we've been to several birthday parties at San Diego Hospice—would be there in the in-patient care center. And I'm not exactly sure, depending on where he is in his life, but I'd really like him to have a big, juicy bone because he's got pancreatitis and he's not supposed to have food like that. He's on a restricted diet. And I think when you turn 20, I think you deserve a big…

JOSEPH/CAVANAUGH: …juicy bone…

JOSEPH: …you know? And I'd really like to do that for him. But there is something that's very important that I need to say about "Moments with Baxter," the book. It will be nationally distributed in June across the country but right now it can only be purchased at Borders at Carmel Mountain Ranch.

CAVANAUGH: And you will be, Baxter, Melissa, Dennis, will be at Borders Books at Carmel Mountain Ranch this Sunday, January 18th, from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. They'll discuss the book. They'll sign copies of the book. And the book's name is "Moments with Baxter." And, of course, Baxter looks as if he's looking forward to that bone just – just a year from now.

JOSEPH: And Baxter pawtographs his books. Each book has Baxter's original, authentic left paw print.

CAVANAUGH: There it is.

JOSEPH: Yep. It's a little smudged but it's a good one.

CAVANAUGH: I've got to thank you all so much for coming in today. Dennis Bussey, Melissa Joseph, Noreen Carrington and Baxter. Thank you for being here.

CARRINGTON: Thank you.

JOSEPH: Thank you for allowing us to come here. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: It's fun speaking about Baxter earlier this year. Be sure to tune in to These Days again tomorrow for a special broadcast from the campus of the newly built Lincoln High School in southeast San Diego. That's tomorrow, starting at 9:00 here on These Days. Thanks for listening. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Tune in tomorrow.

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