Wilson greets Willamette Valley Hospice volunteer Sharon Miller as vet assistant Rebecca Armstrong goes over the dog's medication at an appointment Sept. 25 at VCA Keizer Veterinary Hospital. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

As Sharon Miller escorted Wilson to his medical appointment, it was hard to tell the pair had just met.

Wilson, a four-year-old cocker spaniel, jumped on Miller's lap and was eager to push his nose into her face as the pair waited at VCA Keizer Veterinary Hospital.

“I think I could get really attached to Wilson!” Miller said.

Miller is not the dog’s owner – she’s a volunteer with Pet Peace of Mind, a service offered since 2012 by Willamette Valley Hospice.

The goal of hospice care is to take care of emotional and spiritual needs as well as medical ones, and involve family members in the process of preparing for death.

At Willamette, that includes caring for their pets. Patients can receive free food, litter and vet care and volunteers can get, pets to appointments or take them on walks. And when their owner dies, the hospice helps find the pet a new home.

Shelley Wagener, the hospice’s volunteer coordinator, said animals provide comfort and can be a constant in a patient’s life when other things are in flux.

“The way they look is changing, the way they feel is changing and the animal just loves them for who they are,” she said. “The animal doesn’t care whether they can remember their name any more. The animal doesn’t care if they don’t look the same or don’t smell the same. Animals are just so loving and connected to their people through the heart.”

Miller is retired and said she used to walk dogs at the Willamette Humane Society, but that got to be too physically challenging. She signed up with the hospice almost three years ago.

As a lifelong dog owner, she values being able to help owners keep their dogs longer.

“I wouldn’t want to be without them,” she said.

She brought Wilson to the vet for shots and to have his ears examined. The owner contacted the hospice requesting an appointment because Wilson had been scratching and shaking his ears, Miller said.

Veterinarian Nicole Hatch cleaned Wilson’s ears and diagnosed him with an infection, then prescribed ear drops.

“He’s just really uncomfortable and it’s just really inflamed in there,” she told Miller.

But that didn’t stop Wilson from greeting Wagener by jumping up on her legs when she arrived at the vet to talk to Miller and pay the bill: $246.

Wilson greets Shelley Wagener, Willamette Valley Hospice's volunteer coordinator, as she arrives to pay the bill for his vet appointment at VCA Keizer Veterinary Hospital. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Wagener said the hospice pet program costs about $8,000 per year in food and vet bills. The non-profit hospice covers most of those direct costs with its annual fundraiser, Walk-n-Wag, a sponsored dog walk held in early September.

Lynn Tylczak is among the family members who have benefited from the program. Her mother, Edith Harrison, was in hospice care until her death in February.

Tylczak said her 92-year-old mother wanted her longtime cat, Graphles, to be taken care of and the program eased her worries.

“They said, ‘We can help your cat find a home,’ and my mom’s eyes just lit up,” Tylczak said.

Because of the program, Harrison could keep Graphles until her death. The long-haired charcoal-and-white cat was 14 and had been declawed before the family adopted her, so she couldn’t live in a home with other cats where she might end up in fights.

She was adopted by a family “very quickly,” Wagener said.

Tylczak could spend her time talking to her mom, not worried about finding her cat a new home.

“When somebody’s about to pass and you have very little time left you don’t want to spend it going to the vet,” she said.

Miller is happy to step in. Her favorite moments as a volunteer have been when she’s able to get into a regular routine with a dog and owner. Once, she walked a pair of dachshunds regularly for an owner who couldn’t any more.

The hardest part of volunteering is knowing most pets will only be in the program for a few months before they go to new homes.

“There’s a touch of sadness then,” she said.

As she and Wilson waited for his medications, she did her best to stop him from scratching his ears, laughing as he continued to greet anyone coming into the room with an excited bounce and nose kiss.

“You can tell this little dog is very well loved,” she said.

This story has been updated to correct volunteer Sharon Miller's last name.

Got a tip? Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.