The Saga of Mae
by Mickey Brettingen
It was nearly the last week in July when I was contacted by a long term care center about searching for a prospective resident dog. I was under the assumption that the activity staff had done their research on housing a resident dog, since a couple of the staff people mentioned they recently attended a seminar about the Eden Alternative given by Paula Kamrath of Censhare. I gladly agreed to help the center. Over the past 5 years, I had made several nursing homes visits with my own dog, so I felt knowledgeable about the type of personality and disposition a dog would need to
adjust to that environment.
The activity director was my contact person for the care center. She stressed the
center’s desire to obtain the dog from a local shelter or Humane Society. On July 31,
1999 I visited the local Humane Society in search of a prospect but found none that
were appropriate for this important position.
On August 2, I called a different Humane Society to inquire about their dogs
available for adoption. They mentioned that a very nice, calm female Border collie
had been brought in on Saturday. That evening, I visited the humane society and was
delighted with the 2-year-old Border collie named Mae who had been found as a
stray with tags. The owner was contacted and decided to surrender the dog, because
he did not want to pay the claim fee to get Mae back. I told them to hold Mae until I
could pick her up on Thursday.
On August 3, the Humane Society contacted me about another dog they had just
received and who they felt may also be appropriate in a nursing home setting. Heidi
was a small Sheltie mix surrendered by a family who was very distraught about
moving to an apartment that did not allow dogs. I agreed to take both dogs home for
Both Heidi and Mae were very pleasant dogs. Heidi was the more active of the two
with Mae lacking a little confidence. Two days later, after brushing and baths, I took
the dogs to the care center for a visit. Mae, being very subdued, was starved for
attention and approached anyone who called her. As soon as a resident ceased to pet
Mae, she would gently nudge a hand with her nose for more. This seemed to generate
an instant feeling of companionship for the residents. Heidi was more aloof, jumped
up a lot (even when not invited), and had no general concern for attention from
anyone. The activity director thanked me for coming and said she would call me the
following day after they decided which dog, if either, to pursue.
Without a doubt, Mae was their first choice. Heidi returned to the Humane Society
and was soon adopted into a good home. Mae moved in with my family (husband, 2
children, and a cat) and in no time was an accepted member of our family. During
Mae’s socialization process, she would sometimes go to work with my husband and
sometimes go to work with me (at that time I worked about 6 hours per day in an
office). I made a visit to my children’s third and fourth grade classes to determine
how Mae would act in a group of children. Mae seemed to behave appropriately, and
without knowing much of her background, I made sure to manage the situation fairly
We also began to make weekly visits to the care center. The purpose of the visits was
to gradually acclimate Mae to the atmosphere of the facility and to allow the activity
director to monitor the effect the dog had on the residents. I received positive
feedback from the center with every visit, and Mae also continued her socialization
with my family. The care center took a vote among the residents, and a decision was
made to make Mae a resident dog. Although a couple of residents did not care for
dogs, they were assured that Mae would not be forced upon them.
Mae was spayed on September 3 and returned to our home on September 4. On
Tuesday, September 7, Mae and I visited the care center to talk with the staff about
proper procedures for living with a resident dog. I left a handout for the staff
covering this information. Mae moved into the center on Friday, September 10. I
called Saturday morning to check on her, and things seemed to be going fine except
that Mae had not yet eliminated when taken outside. I checked back with them later
that afternoon, and those issues were resolved.
On Sunday, September 12, my family and I left for Orlando to return on Thursday. I
called the care center on Tuesday afternoon, and the activity director was thrilled
with Mae, telling me how well she was doing and the positive effect she was having
on the residents. The placement seemed to be going well. I expressed my family’s
desire to visit Mae but explained we would wait awhile so as not to confuse Mae.
On October 5, I decided to drop in for a surprise visit. Until this point, I had made
weekly calls to the activity director to make sure everything was going smoothly.
Mae had a very difficult time walking down the heavily waxed floors which were
slippery. I immediately noticed that no one had kept the hair trimmed on her feet, as I
had emphasized during the staff talk. I took Mae out for a long walk and trimmed the
hair on her feet, as well as her toenails. I also noticed that she had gained a
substantial amount of weight and was pulling quite heavily on the leash. She was
very happy to see me, as I was to see her, but I did not pamper her. As I was leaving
the care center, Mae began to follow me down the hall. I turned, gave her a
“stay” hand signal, and continued on. She remained where she was as I walked out
I felt there had not been enough education for the staff on the care of the dog. Mae
had free run of the facility and was being let outside many times off of the leash and
unsupervised. She seemed to be lacking exercise as well as personal care.
In early November, the activity director contacted me about some mistreatment to
Mae by the staff. On November 11, I scheduled a visit to the facility to implement a
refresher staff training. At this point, Mae had begun to nip and growl, although very
seldom and selectively at a couple of staff members. I learned that one of the night
staff was playing rough with Mae, such as getting on the floor and growling and
barking at her. Even though I had emphasized that she get plenty of rest at night, the
night staff was getting her out of her “rest” room and keeping her up at night for the
staff’s benefit. I was also made aware that some of the staff were upset with the
presence of a live-in animal, so my presentation to the staff stressed the importance
of their role in Mae’s care. But unfortunately during my visit on November 11, I
again had to trim the hair on Mae’s feet and clip her nails.
A couple of days later, I found out that those who were provoking Mae did not show
up for the staff training and had since quit their position at the care center. I was
somewhat relieved and thought my worries for Mae were over. With a little work and
desensitizing, Mae could return to being a great resident dog. I suggested that Mae be
taken home at night with someone trustworthy to assure her of a good night rest, give
her a little relief from the facility, and provide some consistency in her life. Mae
spent her evenings with three different families. This worked well, and Mae seemed
to be in better spirits, according to my conversations with the activity director.
On December 1, the activity director called me in a frenzy and asked if I could take
Mae from the center. The following morning, I showed up for Mae who was
extremely happy to see me. I learned of more inappropriate behavior by the staff
members. Someone had rolled back in her office chair and accidentally bumped Mae
with the wheel. Startled, Mae reacted with a quick, short warning growl. The activity
director assured the staff person that Mae was simply startled. The staff person said
that next time she would step on her harder. At this point, the activity director was
worried for Mae’s safety and contacted me asking if I could keep her over the
holidays. I stressed how confusing this would be for Mae and how there was much
more involved than just repairing the damage. I suggested that Mae either stay with
me or be placed in another home situation. I felt that she was beyond the safe point of
placing her back in the care center as a resident animal.
Upon returning home with Mae, I once again trimmed the hair on her feet, clipped
her nails, and brushed her a lot. From all that I brushed out of her, I assume she was
not brushed often. I also became aware of Mae’s reduced level of confidence. I began
to make scheduled weekly visits, on Tuesdays, with Mae to the care center. A couple
of residents really missed having her around. I tried to limit her visits to one hour,
because longer visits were stressful. I noticed Mae would not go down one of the
hallways and later found out that a resident who did not like dogs lived in that
hallway and had hit her a couple of times with a cane. This never should have
happened! I began to wonder who was looking out for Mae’s welfare. During the scheduled visits, Mae was good with the 4-5 residents we would visit each week,
however, she seemed insecure. Something had certainly changed from the time I first
placed her. At home I began to work on rebuilding her confidence and trust.
It was soon time for the care center to make some decisions about Mae. I strongly
advised them against returning Mae to the center as a resident dog. The advisory
board mentioned that they had a staff member, Chris, interested in adopting Mae and
making weekly visits. I was somewhat hesitant about this, not knowing if Mae would
be spending more time at the facility than would be fair to her. Chris had taken Mae
home a couple of evenings in November. Mae had gotten along well with Chris’s
other dogs and family members. During a visit shortly before Christmas, Mae
showed extreme excitement upon seeing Chris in the distance. Mae’s behavior told
me that Chris was okay and a person that really meant something to her.
On December 28, late in the morning, I returned Mae to the care center. Chris would
start her shift in the early afternoon, and Mae would go home with her at the end of
the day. The following day, I called Chris to check on Mae. Chris said all was well
and that the plan was to have Mae visit once a week, initially. Chris also emphasized
that a family member was always available to take Mae home if the day got to be too
much for her.
On January 19, I contacted Chris once again to check on Mae. Chris conveyed that
Mae seemed comfortable visiting twice a week sometimes. Mae was typically okay
for about an eight hour stay. Whenever Chris saw that Mae was getting stressed, a
family member was called to take Mae home. I talked with Chris about the
importance of Mae being “her dog” and that she needs to express a stronger sense of
protectiveness over Mae. Chris agreed that this was an important factor in Mae’s
success as a visitor at the care center.
Even though things did not turn out as originally planned, I take great comfort in
knowing that Mae’s situation is now secure and that the residents benefit from the
presence of this sweet, devoted animal. If it weren’t for a few concerned people at the
care center, this situation could have been a disaster for both Mae and the facility. By
sharing Mae’s story, I hope to show the importance of seeking unanimous support
from staff and residents BEFORE bringing in a live-in animal. I encourage facilities
to go to great depths in weighing the pros and cons of having a live-in animal.
Sometimes visiting or working animal programs are better choices. It is never an all
or nothing situation as we learned from the Saga of Mae (so titled because I honestly
view Mae as a hero).
Lessons to be Learned
- Facility contacted a local dog trainer to help them select a dog from the
humane society and also help train staff about the proper care of Mae.
- Dog trainer agreed to help by fostering, training, and gradually introducing
Mae to LTC environment.
- Dog trainer agreed to help with ongoing acclimation of Mae to the facility.
Where Things Went Wrong:
- Facility had no clear objectives as to why they felt a live-in dog would meet
- Facility did not have full cooperation from all the staff to support a live-in
animal. (It only takes one person to sabotage the program!)
- Staff was unwilling/unable to provide proper ongoing care of Mae, ie, feeding
schedule, grooming, and consistent positive reinforcement of desired
- Mae started showing signs of stress and neglect, eg, blowing coat, nervous and
- Mae was abused by a resident with a cane. This would not have happened if
the staff had provided better supervision.
- Even the staff acted aggressively towards Mae evidenced by the story of the
staff member who backed over Mae’s tail, complained when she growled, and
said next time she would do it harder!
- Mae had to be removed and reassessed. She eventually was adopted by a staff
member and became a “working dog” that visited only a few times a week
under close supervision.