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Comforting Canine

Merlin and Susan Bandsma bring compassion to vets and disaster victims.

Comfort therapy is just what it sounds like — emotional and moral support for those in need of comfort, whether after a natural disaster like a tornado, flood or fire, after personal trauma, or even during end-of-life care. Comfort therapy offers love, support, sympathy and sometimes a much-needed distraction.

Susan Bandsma and her dog, Merlin, a Borzoi, are a part of the American Red Cross Southwest Michigan-based K9 Action Team, which provides comfort therapy for those in need. The team includes one other dog, a Portuguese Water Dog named Piper, based in Grand Rapids. Together the two dogs and the people who work with them make up one of only two K9 Action Teams in the nation (the other is in Ohio).

Bandsma and Merlin provide comfort therapy to victims of disasters, like the Holiday Motel fire in Kalamazoo last year, to those receiving end-of-life care, like residents at Hospice at Home, and to veterans in crisis, like the patients at the Battle Creek VA Medical Center.

The American Red Cross business cards that Bandsma passes out are Merlin’s — they include his picture, his name and his position (Comfort Therapy Volunteer), and if you call Bandsma about the K9 Action Team, she’ll tell you she’s “Merlin’s person.” Speaking to Bandsma, it’s easy to get the impression that Merlin is the driving force in the partnership.

“I honestly believe he was born to be a comfort therapy dog,” she says. “He’s so good at it. He knows when to stay by somebody and when it’s time to move on to the next person who needs him. And he loves the attention. He’ll stand there all day if you keep petting him.”

Not every dog can be a therapy dog, explains Bandsma, and it’s not a breed-related quality either — not all Borzois make good therapy dogs, she says. What makes Merlin or Piper or another dog a good therapy dog has to do with the dog’s personality. And to Bandsma, who had never trained a therapy dog before Merlin, he’s the reason they’re a K9 Action Team.

To the people who benefit from Merlin’s visits, the story is a little different. Kimberly Ziel, lead recreation therapist at the VA Medical Center in Battle Creek, frequently works with Bandsma and Merlin, who come to the hospital to visit inpatient mental health patients every other weekend. To her, Bandsma is as much a reason the K9 Action Team is so successful at providing comfort therapy as Merlin is.

“I’m just really thankful for Susan, as well as for Merlin, because they are such a good pair,” she says. “They’re a natural fit. Sometimes you get an anxious owner and a really nurturing dog or a really nurturing owner and an anxious dog. Susan and Merlin are the perfect combination, so they make our veterans feel really comfortable. They offer a lot.”

The veterans in the inpatient therapeutic recreation section of the VA Medical Center are in crisis when they first come in, Ziel explains. They’re either a danger to themselves or to others, and sometimes they’re at the medical center voluntarily and other times not. In order to create the trust needed to connect with the veterans so they’ll come back for follow-up care after release, it’s incredibly important for the VA Medical Center to make personal connections with the veterans. Merlin and Susan help to do that, Ziel says.

“There’s a lot of socializing that happens because Merlin brings their guard down,” she says. “So a lot of times Susan will be engaging with the veterans while others are visiting with Merlin.”

Bandsma and Merlin aren’t the first Borzoi-and-person pair to visit the medical center, Ziel says. There was another volunteer who would visit the VA every week with her Borzoi, until the volunteer became too ill. That’s when she reached out to the Borzoi Association and asked if anyone would be willing to take her place. Even though it was an hour from her Red Cross home base in St. Joseph, Bandsma volunteered.

“And after Susan visited us at the VA, she would go visit our previous volunteer at hospice too,” Ziel says. “Susan kept visiting her until she passed away. Susan’s extra-special because of how she connected with us and her drive to be here.”

And even though Ziel helps to put some of the focus back on Bandsma, she agrees that Merlin is a big part of the team too.

“Merlin is a really loving dog,” Ziel says. “You don’t want a dog that you have to command — like ‘sit by this person’ or ‘sit by that person’ — because then it feels like the dog doesn’t love you, that he’s just an obedient dog. Merlin gives the unconditional love. He loves you, he leans into you and then he comes back for more. 

Tiffany Fitzgerald

As Encore’s staff writer, Tiffany writes — a lot. She is responsible for our Upfront, Savor, Enterprise and Good Works features every month, as well as other stories in the arts. If that wasn’t enough, she is also the editor of FYI, our new family magazine that debuted last month. When we aren’t working her to death, she hangs out with her husband and two sons and dreams of having the time to complete Pinterest-worthy projects.

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