For the past five years, Stuart Stofferahn and his therapy dog Buckley have visited hospice patients, an experience that has changed his life.
Community service has always been part of Stuart’s life. His mom taught in the public-school system for 35 years. Stuart considers her a model of patience and an inspiration. His dad advocated for farmers, and was a school board member, state legislator, and state elected official. Stuart calls his dad a hero. As for Stuart, he’s worked in schools, the church, and the United States military for most of his life. In addition, he’s taught classes through Junior Achievement, volunteered at hospices, and currently teaches for the Community Action Partnership of Lancaster and Saunders counties. On his website, Stuart writes, “I guess you can say [service] is in my blood.”
Animals have also always been part of Stuart’s life. Stuart grew up on a farm with animals all around. The barn cats kept the mouse population in check. He doesn’t remember his family ever specifically looking for a puppy, but dogs seemed to just show up on the farm. Stuart still remembers how sad he felt when the family moved to the city and left their Golden Retriever behind with the new owners. For several years, the family made trips back to the farm and would check on Sandy, but then one day she was gone. With animals being such a constant force in his life, it was natural that as an adult Stuart became active with animal rescue and in particular the Golden Retriever Rescue.
After his divorce, Stuart found himself soul-searching and needing to fill a void. He already owned a seven-year-old dog named Comet, but decided to add a puppy to his household. When Stuart met Buckley in 2009, the two instantly clicked. Even though, according to Stuart, Comet helped raise Buckley, a bond was also developing between Stuart and Buckley. The two spend their days and nights together. Buckley slept with Stuart, and also hung close while Stuart did yard work.
Stuart’s most memorable moments with Buckley came during this time. “One day some kids came up to the yard,” Stuart said. “Buckley ran up to them, but they ran off. The next time the kids came, Buckley crawled up to them. This time they stayed.” And that’s when Stuart knew that Buckley possessed “a deep understanding of how to connect with people.”
Stuart immediately acted on his discovery. He read about Domesti-PUPS online and contacted them. After that, Stuart and Buckley attended classes to learn how Buckley could become a therapy dog. By the time Buckley turned four, he had passed the Canine Good Citizen test. Not long after, the two began visiting nursing and assisted-living facilities as part of the Domesti-PUPS team. Half of the people in assisted-living are never visited, Stewart said, and ‘Buckley and I wanted to change all that.
But the two had only just begun. Due to his being a self-described introvert, Stuart soon found himself wanting to extend visits past the few allotted minutes, so that he could build deeper relationships with patients. Stuart also began to feel that Buckley’s talents were being underutilized, and that he would be happier spending more time with patients. Stuart contacted Tabitha Health Care and asked if they were offering therapy pet services to hospice patients. The volunteer coordinator invited him in for a visit to chat about reinitializing their program with the help of Domesti-PUPS.
Fast forward to the fall of 2018, the two have logged over 500 hours and visited over 60 hospice patients. When I asked Stuart to share some memorable moments, he said there was no one moment, but did tell me that Buckley enjoyed cuddling up to patients and sometimes would even choose specific toys to present when the two visited.
Stuart also recalled a visit with one of his first patients, where the two talked about a book called Final Gifts by Mary Callahan. In her book, Callahan shares a story from a visit with a client, who says the first time she noticed the second hand on a clock is when she was diagnosed with a terminal illness. “I was talking to my client about that,” said Stuart, “and it rang very true for her. Before I left, she looked at me, and she asked, ‘Now what you are doing with your seconds?’ In that moment, everything changed for me.”
Finally, Stuart expressed how privileged he had felt to receive invitations to memorial services. He would usually go ahead of time to see the family. They were not always aware that their past loved one had received visits from a therapy dog team and would express their gratitude to him. According to Stuart, family members can’t always be around for their loved one as often as they would like and “tears of comfort would flow to know someone had been there in their absence.”
This past October, Stewart and Buckley retired from therapy work. Buckley began to struggle with some health issues, and so the visits had stopped being a joy to him. Now he enjoys walks around the neighborhood and lazy days in the sun.
As for Stuart, he recently wrote a book about Buckley called The Love of a Cold Wet Nose. At first, Stuart ignored his friends who would tell him to write down his hospice stories, but then he decided to take their advice. Thanks to the encouragement of some of his patients, who told him “your gifts need to be out there,” Stuart’s book even includes some poems.
Stuart’s second project draws on his education roots. Although he already had a bachelor’s degree in music education and a master’s degree in educational administration, in 2017 he completed his doctorate in educational administration. As part of the latter, which Stuart calls “the last leg of his education journey,” Stuart wrote a dissertation that focused on improving employment opportunities for people on the Autism Spectrum Disorder. Stuart was inspired by the challenges he observed in a cousin whose autistic son is learning how to live on his own by attending the Minnesota Life College. The latter is a vocational and life skills training program for young adults with learning differences and autism spectrum disorders. Not content to simply write a paper about an issue, Stuart put his words into action by co-founding the Nebraska Transition College.
Although he’s been a motivational speaker for years, Stuart says that his message is more focused thanks to hospice. He’s learned that life goes by quickly, and eagerly shares that message with others. One of this favorite analogies compares the use of time to credit cards. “If I give you a debit card and on that card are all the seconds that you have to live, and wherever you are, wherever you go, you have to swipe that card, and you don’t know how many seconds on your card, does that change how your present?”
When I asked what advice he’d give to others, he suggested that people should listen to what the world says and then act on it. “I became aware that Buckley had a special connection with people,” said Stuart, “and so I chose the path of pet therapy.”