Baxter was a rescue dog turned hospice hero. Part Golden Retriever, part Chow-Chow, Baxter was all love. His owner, Melissa Joseph, welcomed him into her home and her heart when he was about two years old and spent nearly every moment since with him at her side. Baxter became a certified pet therapy dog at the age of 12 and volunteered with San Diego Hospice and the Institute for Palliative Medicine for the last seven years of his life.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa about her time spent as a hospice volunteer with Baxter.
Q: Who was Baxter?
A: Baxter was a "love breed." We know he had Golden Retriever and Chow in him and I liked to call him a "Golden Chow." He was a rescue dog that I got from a friend when he was around two years old. He was the cutest thing with round ears and a cuddly teddy bear look. I knew right away he was different. He was an excellent companion and was with me almost all of the time. Baxter was a gentle soul who made friends with everyone he met.
Q: When did you know Baxter would make a great pet therapy volunteer?
A: My husband decided we should start volunteering for hospice. I spent almost all my time with Baxter and I didn't know what I would do for the three full Saturdays of hospice volunteer training. I found out that San Diego Hospice and the Institute for Palliative Medicine was dog friendly so I brought Baxter along to the training. Baxter made friends with everyone at the volunteer training and made an impression on everyone there. At the end of the training, Baxter was awarded a certificate as an "honorary volunteer" and the staff encouraged me to get him certified.
Q: What did you and Baxter do when you were volunteering together?
A: Baxter and I spent sometimes three to four days a week at the San Diego Hospice inpatient unit for about four to five hours a day. We were there all day every holiday because that's when some people needed him the most. Baxter was a perfect companion to people in emotional and psychological pain. It was like he was passing out "Love Potion Number Baxter" to everyone he met.
Q: What difference did Baxter make in the lives of those he met?
A: Baxter was there for people when they needed it most - at the end of their lives. The end of life is perhaps the most vulnerable time in a person's life; it's a fragile moment. Patients don't always want to talk to other people because it's too hard or painful -- like the thought of having to say goodbye to loved ones is too difficult. But Baxter could come into their lives for a time, like a visiting angel, and then say goodbye. And he left them forever changed.
People who have met Baxter say that he changed them; that something happened to them. It's like when you look in his eyes, everything falls to the ground and you're inside out. Something new in you just comes out.
Q: Why did you decide to write the book Moments With Baxter?
A: When Baxter and I were volunteering, I was witnessing magic! I just couldn't believe what I was seeing. The way people would respond to him and relax when he was there was amazing. I started journaling what I was witnessing and decided I wanted to share it with others. Since Baxter has died, I've received letters and emails from so many people who wanted to share how Baxter impacted their lives that I might add some of their stories in a possible second edition of the book.
I wanted the book to support charity so all the proceeds from the book, and now the Back Seat Stuffie stuffed animal replica of Baxter, go to various charities like the San Diego Hospice and the Institute of Palliative Medicine's inpatient hospice unit. I really wanted all the beds in the hospice to have their own iPod so patients would be able to listen to their own choice of music directly in their ears.
What would you say to people who are considering their dog for pet therapy?
A: I would say to make sure they are certifiable. It's a huge responsibility for the dog; he is representing not only yourself, but the agency he's volunteering for. The dog must be a gentle soul. I would also say to make sure you have the time to dedicate to your dog. The more time you spend with your dog, the smarter and more loving he will become.
To learn more about Baxter and to purchase the book Moments With Baxter or order the Back Seat Stuffie, visit Baxter's website at momentswithbaxter.com. You can read Baxter's blog at baxieboo.wordpress.com.
If you would like more information about getting your pet certified as a pet therapy animal, please see Cuddly Cats and Canines Make Excellent Hospice Volunteers.