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Man’s Best Friend
26 February 2021

Some of the best things in life are intangible, like the enthusiastic tail wags and human-animal friendships arising from pet-assisted befriending at HCA. Above: Nothing could mask the joy on the patients’ faces as they enjoyed some canine cuddles.

By Toh Wei Shi, HCA Community Relations

There’s nothing quite like the unadulterated enthusiasm of a dog that just wants to bring joy to others. Enter the four-legged, furry volunteers under the pet-assisted befriending group that visits HCA’s Day Hospice on a monthly basis, to interact with patients and brings smiles to wizened faces.

The volunteer-led initiative has a 20-year history, first beginning under the Singapore Kennel Club and subsequently branching out into different independent groups. “As there were many volunteers and dogs, they divided themselves into smaller groups and visited quite a number of nursing homes, hospices and even children’s homes,” Xavier Lim, who leads the pet-assisted befriending programme at HCA, explains. “I was among some of the volunteers who started volunteering at HCA 20 years back.”

Furry Friendships

Friendships imbue our lives with joy, comfort and laughter. The patients at HCA Day Hospice were pleasantly greeted by the sight of five furry volunteers dashing through the doors in January, after a nine-month hiatus, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The presence of the canine volunteers often help to break the ice.

“From my personal experience, bringing a dog to interact with a patient almost always brings about a smile and brightens up his or her mood,” Xavier shares. “Some become chattier – they may recollect their past experiences with pets or simply like animals. They gladly cuddle the dogs and stroke them.”

The presence of these furry companions often serve as an ice breaker or conversation starter as well. “Some patients are curious and ask questions about the pet and we try to regale them with stories about our pets’ antics,” Xavier says.

Despite the obvious benefits of interacting with pets, Xavier is quick to distinguish their efforts from the more formal term of pet therapy. “I would rather think of our volunteering efforts as pet-assisted befriending, since we are not trained counsellors or psychologists.”

Leaving Paw Prints on Hearts 

Presently, Xavier and his group of human and canine volunteers visit the HCA Day Hospice once a month, but the interactions have left indelible paw prints on the hearts of the patients.

“The patients often say that it’s been a while since we visited, or express how fast a month has passed,” Xavier shares. “I don’t think we can claim to provide any sustainable, long-term benefits to the patients with our monthly, hour-long visits.”

“But I believe we complement the wide variety of volunteer-assisted activities that breaks the monotony for the patients and appeal to those who have interest in different things.”

For HCA Day Hospice patient Eric Ong, who has kept pet cats and dogs in the past, the pet-assisted befriending programme brings back fond memories. “Their presence really brightens our day and is a welcomed distraction from our troubles and physical discomfort,” Eric says.

Mdm Lee with a furry volunteer.

Another Day Hospice patient, Mdm Lee Mong Tee, was all smiles as she gently cradled one of the dogs in her lap and shared with the volunteers about her beloved pet husky at home.

“Pet-assisted befriending also helps to establish some kind of a relationship with the patients,” Xavier says. “For example, I also volunteer to drive the vans for the Day Hospice’s transport service and some patients ask me about my dog when they see me. I think for both volunteers and patients, it's really nice to be with people we recognise and know.”