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How my dog makes me a better nurse

Brennan-Cook, Jill, DNP, RN, CNE

doi: 10.1097/01.NURSE.0000546458.48499.5a
Feature: Sharing

A nurse draws lessons and inspiration from her furry friend.

Jill Brennan-Cook is an assistant clinical professor at Duke University's School of Nursing in Durham, N.C.

The author has disclosed no financial relationships related to this article.

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MAPLE DIDN'T GO to nursing school, yet she's made me a better nurse. When I first met my dog, she tilted her head and stared at me for a second before instinctively running toward me. At that moment, I knew that Maple was the dog for me. What I didn't know was how she would change my life and impact my nursing practice.

When I come home from work, Maple greets me as if I have been gone for days. Her tail wags. She snorts and jumps up until she's panting from the exertion. I can't help but smile at her enthusiasm. Whatever difficulties I faced during the day, whatever mistakes I'm mulling over, whatever stress I drove home with, melts away. Someone is happy to see me. Someone is glad I'm there.

I want my patients to feel the same way. Our patients are fragile and vulnerable. Often, we're meeting them on the worst days of their lives. They need us to be a source of positive energy. At first encounters and every interaction thereafter, we have the power to affirm their worth as individuals, demonstrate our concern for their well-being, and take pleasure in our ability to console and comfort them.

Maple can communicate her needs to me without speaking the same language. If she wants attention, she rolls over for a belly rub. If she needs to go outside, she scratches at the door and whines. If she is hungry or thirsty, she puts a paw in her dish to let me know it's empty. She makes it easy for me to figure out her needs.

Likewise, nonverbal cues are an important part of communication between a patient and nurse. We need to look for those signs that a patient may be uncomfortable or in distress. We need to be aware of what to look for and how to read our patients' gestures and behavior.

Maple sniffs and explores every nook and cranny of our yard as if to question everything. What's under the bushes in the yard? What's in the branches of the trees? She patrols the property protectively and warns me if she senses danger.

A good nurse is curious too. We need to be interested in our patients' stories and listen attentively when they express a concern, a pain, or a worry. These are clues that could help us solve medical mysteries, soothe upsets, and make a difference in a patient's life. Nurses need to remain alert for the risks and dangers our patients face and pay close attention to subtle changes.

Maple accepts me for who I am. She doesn't judge me when I'm cranky or tired. She's happy when I'm happy. We need to accept our patients for who they are as well. It's not our place to judge them. If they are cranky, we can try to understand them. When they are demanding, we can gently set limits. When they are sad, we can be there for them. There are times when our patients just need us to sit quietly. Our physical and emotional presence is all they need. When they are happy, we can celebrate with them.

Maple knows there is a time to rest, to sleep, and to eat. This brings balance to her life. She spends a great deal of her day sleeping, so when she needs that sudden burst of energy to greet me, to chase a squirrel, or to take a run with me, she has it.

Nurses also need balance in their lives. To take care of our patients, we need to take care of ourselves. Self-care involves nurses making decisions and taking actions to address their own well-being and maintain their own health.1 We need to rest, to eat well, and to take time for ourselves so that we have the energy to care for others.

I once entered the room of a patient experiencing poorly controlled pain. Her medication wasn't helping and staff members were growing weary of her constant complaints. Accepting her with unconditional concern for pain relief was all I could do in that moment.

After requesting and administering supplemental medication, I sat quietly at her bedside and gently massaged her tired and contracted muscles. As she gradually relaxed, she thanked me for being respectful of her dignity. I realized later that Maple has helped me to understand that suffering is part of life and we are all called to remain positive and accepting in times of despair.

Nurses who are interested in their patients and provide positivity for their patients will find true joy in nursing. Maple is a role model for my own desired behaviors and helps me to be a better nurse.

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REFERENCE

1. Ashcraft PF, Gatto SL. Curricular interventions to promote self-care in prelicensure nursing students. Nurse Educ. 2018;43(3):140–144.
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