As a registered nurse with Family Hospice and Palliative Care in Mt. Lebanon, Beth Utterback devotes her days to helping people in their time of need. A compassionate person by nature, she is also a huge animal lover with a special place in her heart for dogs. So when Prince, a beagle/collie mix of a Family Hospice patient, needed to find a new home after his owner passed away, Utterback stepped in without hesitation.
According to Greg Jena, manager of marketing and public relations for Family Hospice, Prince had been enrolled in Family Hospice’s Pet Peace of Mind program, which helps to preserve a patient’s connection with their pet through the end-of-life process, since December 2012. “Trained volunteers help care for the pets of Family Hospice patients by taking them for walks, to vet appointments and more,” he said.
Utterback had been working as a preceptor, taking new nurses out in the field to introduce them to how Family Hospice does its nursing and care. “When I didn’t have anyone to precept, I would help the other nurses out doing visits,” Utterback said.
During one of her visits to Prince’s owner’s home, Utterback overheard family members say they weren’t able to keep the animal as they weren’t “dog lovers” and worked long hours. Feeling it wouldn’t be fair to Prince, they felt their only option was to take the dog to a shelter after his owner passed.
“I said, ‘Oh no, if you don’t want Prince, I’ll take him,’” said Utterback, who already had two dogs of her own at home, Barney and Lacey. Barney, 3, is a purebred beagle and his sister, Lacey, also 3, is a mix. At the time, she had no plans on adding a third.
After Prince’s owner died in mid-March, Utterback lost touch with the patient’s family. Thankfully, Jane Barthen, a social worker with Family Hospice, had a phone number and was able to reunite Utterback with the family.
As with most families who are considering adding another dog to the household, Utterback had some concerns. “My dogs are really attached to me, and I didn’t know how they’d feel with me bringing a third dog in,” she said. But because Barney and Lacey are both young and need to be crated while she is away, Prince spends each day with Utterback’s 77-year-old mother, who lives just around the corner.
“It’s good company for her,” explained Utterback. “My two dogs are in a crate because my house would look like a tornado hit if they weren’t. Prince is 7. He’s mellow and doesn’t need crated, so that bothered my dogs.” At Utterback’s mother’s home, Prince has full run of the house and yard, which is fenced.
Utterback said that when Prince first came to her home, Lacey was “a little standoffish.” “He’d go to eat and she’d growl at him, and she’s just a little thing,” she said. “Prince would stop eating, look at her then turn his head back to his dish and keep eating.”
Now, all three dogs get along well and run and play together. “He’s energetic when the other dogs are out playing,” Utterback said.
While Prince loves to play with his new brother and sister, he’s much more mellow with Utterback’s mother. “He lays right where she’s at.”
Before coming to his new home, Prince was a faithful companion to his previous owner. While she wasn’t able to interact with him in her final days, Prince never left her side. “He laid right next to her until the ambulance came,” recalled Utterback. Afterward, she said, Prince was depressed. “You could see that. He was sad. He just lost his owner.” Utterback said it took some time for Prince to get over his owner’s death, and about a week to settle into his new home.
Utterback said Prince has a “fantastic temperament.”
“They trained him to some degree. He’ll sit, he’ll lay, he’ll give you his paw.” And, she said, Prince rarely barks.
According to Jena, the Pet Peace of Mind program, which was started at Family Hospice in 2011, now has a total of 30 volunteers. To date, 14 patients have used the service, and it has expanded beyond the South Hills to Pittsburgh, the eastern suburbs and the North Hills.
And, Jena said Utterback isn’t the first one of Family Hospice’s staff to have been approached by patients or families to take over the care of a pet. “Sometimes it’s feasible, sometimes it’s not, but here was Beth, willing to give a dog a great home, and here was a dog who needed a home. The planets aligned and it worked out.”