Baxter the Dog Brings Calm, and Joy, to Final Moments of Very Ill
Baxter, who has been visiting patients at San Diego Hospice and in their homes for almost five years now, was already old when he became a therapy dog. He's had arthritis and chronic bronchitis for 10 years. He's got his own doggy wheelchair and wagon because he can't walk, or even stand for more than 20 minutes. Still, despite enduring his own aging and ailments, or maybe in part because of it, Baxter lights up the lives he touches. "When [hospice patients] see his frailty and the brightness in his eyes, they connect to it," says Joseph.
Baxter came into Joseph's home in 1991 after a friend with several dogs of her own rescued the heart-worm-infected pup who was to be euthanized. Early on, he showed signs of being abused – he would cower and and scare easily. His teeth were in bad shape and a vet put his age at 2 or 3. Eventually, Baxter's confidence grew and he became "the most well-behaved, socialized and compliant" dog Joseph has ever met.
When her husband Dennis Bussey signed the couple up to volunteer at San Diego Hospice, Joseph decided to bring Baxter along to the animal-friendly facility. It didn't take long for others at the hospice to take to the dog. At a fellow volunteer's urging, Joseph certified Baxter with Therapy Dogs International. Today, he visits the hospice two to three times a week, spending time with the very ill. Many of the patients talk to Baxter; most invite him into their bed, and some even hold the 41-lb. Chow/Labrador mix like a baby.
"I think one of the main reasons pet therapy works is that when someone does not feel well, a silent loving creature can really take them out of themselves," says Joseph. "It's a very innocent relationship – that innocence can be translated into an escape.
Joseph also believes that those faced with saying goodbye to everyone they love may take solace in spending time with someone they won't have to worry about leaving. "With Baxter, they don't know him, they can hold him and they don't have to let go of him because he's not part of their world," says Joseph, "he's part of their moment."
Joseph and photographer Bussey have captured 36 of those moments – many of them last moments – and put them together for a book released this summer, Moments with Baxter. All proceeds from the book will go to the SPCA, San Diego Hospice and Humane Society.
Last month, Baxter was invited to San Diego City Hall where he was presented with an award and honored with his own holiday – July 21 is now Baxter Day San Diego County.
And the elderly dog shows no signs of slowing down; he was the star of several paw signings for his book, and there are plans for a Baxter stuffed animal, with all proceeds again going to charity.
"The moment it's too much for him, we'll stop" Joseph says of Baxter's work. But for now, she says, "He gets as much from it as they do."
Therapy dogs have to have some very special qualities. They can't be reactive or make a lot of noise, and they must get along with other animals and love children. Joseph encourages owners of dogs with this temperament to consider training their pet to be a therapy dog. "People think it's going to be sad but, it's the antithesis of that," says Joseph. "It's very inspiring and rewarding."
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