RJ Donovan inmates trained Stevie as a service dog for nine months.

Story and photos courtesy Hospice of the North Coast

A service dog trained by two inmates in the Prisoners Overcoming Obstacles & Creating Hope (POOCH) program at R.J. Donovan State Correctional Facility is now helping patients who are at the end of the their lives. Since graduating from the prison program, Stevie comforts patients who receive Symptom management care at Hospice of the North Coast’s (HNC) Pacifica House.

Stevie was trained to rest her chin on people as a way to connect and provide comfort to end-of-life patients.

Not yet 3 years old, Stevie has already become a loving symbol of transformation, confirms her handler and guardian, Danielle Nowicki, Pacifica House Volunteer Coordinator.

They have been certified by Assistance Dogs International as a facility dog team; the first at a hospice residence in San Diego County. The association is a result of a conversation between HNC Executive Director Sharon Lutz and TLC Executive Director Victoria Cavaliere.

To adopt Stevie, Carlsbad-based HNC teamed with Solana Beach-based Tender Loving Canines (TLC).

“I attended Stevie’s May 2017 graduation ceremony after her successful nine-month in-prison training program. The two male inmates who worked with Stevie cried as they spoke of their deep connection to her, saying she had brought hope, healing and love back into their lives,” said Nowicki. “Stevie now lives with my husband and me in Oceanside. She has already made our lives more full and fun; I love our evening walks through the neighborhood. Stevie comes to work with me daily to enhance our patients’ quality of life. She turns Pacifica House into a genuine home for terminally ill people and their families at a stressful time; she’s there when people need her most.”

Nowicki says that in addition to her learned skills, Stevie seems to have an innate sense of what people want from her, and she is happy to oblige.

“She is a highly intuitive dog. When we spend time with family members in the Pacifica living room, people frequently are locked in their own prisons of grief and trauma. Stevie’s comforting presence can break people out of their grief for a precious few minutes just by sitting quietly at their feet and establishing a connection,” she said. “Petting Stevie can work wonders for friends and family, and for the terminally ill patients themselves.”

Greg Force, a patient at HNC, said Stevie was the best part of his stay. He recently passed away.

Stevie has been trained to place her chin on a patient as a form of bonding and gentle acupressure.

For those who are weary of the clinical setting in which they have been immersed over the final months, weeks and days of their lives, especially for animal lovers who are deeply missing their own beloved companions at home, it’s an added touch of life that makes people light up.

Before he passed away, Pacifica House resident Greg Force established a warm bond with Stevie.

“Greg confided that interacting with Stevie was the best part of his stay with us. Being able to make someone’s final days on Earth more happy and joyful cannot be put into words,” she said.

What is Hospice of the North Coast?

Nonprofit HNC was established in 1980 to fill the need for comprehensive, compassionate hospice care in North County San Diego.

Since its inception, it has grown in services that include global partner Nkhoma Palliative Care in Malawi, a resale store in Encinitas, Pathways Palliative Care, Hope Bereavement Center and Pacifica House, the only in-patient acute symptom management facility in North County.

(Editor’s note: Some websites may not be accessible from a CDCR computer.)

For more information, visit www.hospicenorthcoast.org.

Stevie rests her chin on a patient’s leg.