During Pet Therapy, My Dog Does the Talking

Mary Dell writes: I come from a long line of talkers, gregarious Texans who delight in telling tales and learning the back stories from strangers. My upbringing served me well while I worked in media, marketing NBC shows like the Smurfs or Saturday Night Live as story-telling opportunities. Yet now, as a pet therapy volunteer, I struggle to find words while watching my partner, a chocolate Labrador named Moose, communicate fluidly.

Pet Therapy dog

Five years ago, while casually thumbing through a New York-Presbyterian newsletter, a small-print headline “Volunteers with Dogs Needed” grabbed my attention. I was struck with the idea that this would be the perfect volunteer job, one that could help fill a growing gap in my life. With our eldest child a high school senior and the youngest increasingly independent, an empty nest loomed. Plus, I am a big dog lover – we have owned four Labs during our two-decade marriage. Yet the mostly likely candidate to be my partner, Moose, was still a rowdy and marginally obedient two-year old puppy, and I questioned his suitability.

Until we walked up the steps to the hospital for our initial screening, I had never set foot on the grounds although I had driven by the entrance hundreds of time. The buildings on the 200-acre wooded campus are set far away from the road, hidden from the nearby commercial hustle-bustle. It is was only after we arrived and checked in for our evaluation that I learned that this branch of NY-P is a psychiatric hospital whose roots in this spot go back to 1894.

NY-Presbyterian Hospital

That fall night, Moose was excited and I was nervous. My treat-filled baggie did little to help me prevent him from rushing toward other prospective therapy teams, terrifying the Yorkies and Bichons. He jumped up on Stacey, the evaluator, who, with her own leap of faith, accepted us into training beginning with an obedience class followed by the pet therapy course. Within six months, Moose had become a better (far from perfect) behaved dog and I learned the skills and protocol I needed to pass the Pet Partners certification test. Our assignment was to pay a visit every Monday to the “Second Chance Program,” where our patients* (all names changed below) would be adults suffering from schizophrenia.

Every Monday we ride the elevator to the third floor, ring a bell and hear the key unlocking the door on the other side.

“Moose!” We are greeted with enthusiasm from a few of the residents. “Hey, hi, how are you? Are you coming to down to Pet Therapy?” I ask, encouraging them to attend.

Joey* crouches down and calls out loudly “Moose, Moose, come here.” He tugs at the leash while we hurry down the hall. Petting, hugging, tail wagging commence.

We continue our walk toward the meeting room, stopping for two men seated on a hallway couch to give Moose quick scratches behind the ears. Some of the residents are asleep and others look elsewhere, disinterested.

Pet Therapy is an “elective” and those who attend are rewarded through a therapeutic strategy of positive reinforcement. When behavior points add up to a certain level, privileges like walking around the grounds or having meals off the floor are granted. Generally half of the thirty residents arrive or drift in and out. Sometimes people join but fall asleep during the session.

Moose and I have visited this unit for five years. We have seen many patients in their very first days when their health challenges seemed almost insurmountable. Some pace silently, join us for a while and leave. I talk about the cold outside, NFL playoffs and seek out any fans who might want to talk about their teams. I bring stacks of magazines I harvest from our house, hoping a cover photo might trigger an interchange.

I tell stories about Moose and our other dogs, past and present. I hear about their dogs, those they had during childhood and others given up when their owners could no longer care for them. Maggie* shows me a tattered photo of her teacup poodle, whom she misses terribly. Moose is a substitute and Maggie sits on the floor at every session giving him extensive belly rubs.

Anna* was afraid of dogs and never wanted Moose to come near. Over the months of our visits, she gained confidence in him (and me) and began to take the soft white baby brush I offer at each session. The first time, I held his head away from her. She learned to trust him and offered him a treat with a steady hand. On the last day before she was discharged, she asked to hug Moose which she did for a very long time. He leaned into her as a knot grew in my throat.

I sometimes talk about my life and our kids. When I discuss my daughter’s soccer games, I am later asked if she won or lost. When our son graduated from college, they congratulated me, for him. When I travel and miss a Monday session, I am asked how my vacation was. We know little about each other but we share details of our lives.

The group is fluid, with men and women being dismissed and others taking their places. Many have spoken to me about their frustration of waiting for a bed to open in an adult house. One was a patient named Marlene* who left and, three weeks later, returned. Formerly a Moose-enthusiast, she turned her head away as we walked in.

We celebrate the holidays with cupcakes and Christmas cards. In July, on Moose’s birthday, we sing “Happy Birthday” with more cupcakes. Weekly, I offer a bit of conversation but mostly I bring them Moose who, for a speck of time, is a comfort. Now a settled seven-year old, he is obedient and patiently cuddles with anyone wanting to draw him close. He leans into their hugs, often collapsing onto his back, paws up and readily accepting the attention and petting. (For a dog, really, it may not ever be better than this.)

And for me, what do I receive? Frequently, someone will look me straight in the eye and thank me for coming. Juliet* tells me “God bless you, Mary Dell.” My words fail me and I struggle to croak back, “God bless you, too.” My heart breaks for these men and women who face such serious health challenges. I wish them well when they confide that they are leaving and I pray they are successful. I pray for those who remain. Each Monday, I thank the group for being so friendly to Moose and me. He conveys his happiness with ears back and tail wags. I don’t have the words to express my deepest gratitude.

Good Dog, Moose

NY-P is a Planetree Hospital, one of 500 health care facilities around the world recognized for its exemplary patient-centered practices.  Annually, the Planetree organization recognizes individuals at these hospitals through its Spirit of Planetree Awards. Moose was among the 2013  Animal Therapy Award honorees and you can read about it here.

Moose, pet therapy dog

His good deeds were also noted by The Container Store who chose him as one of ten, out of more than 600 entries, in their holiday It’s Better to Give contest.   His story is included here.


pet therapy dog, Moose


USA, OLympics, therapy dog

Moose therapy dog, UVA fan

therapy dog, Moose

Moose, therapy dog

Pet therapy

Tyranny of the Mirror: a Reflection on Aging

Lisa writes: This photo was up on the HuffPost50 Facebook page last week (see below.) It is a picture of Dyan Cannon, the well-known actress, at age 77. Cannon looks great at this age, but she looked great at every age. Yet, there was another message here, it seems, the message that this is what 77 can look like, that if we play our cards right and spend more time and more money on our looks, we too might never look old. It is a message designed to make us feel better about aging, but I fear it achieves just the reverse.

Snow White, Mirror Mirror on the Wall, aging

In the name of making us feel good about aging, to show that time’s erosion can be fought at every turn, are we are just making ourselves feel worse about an unstoppable process? Was an earlier generation, far less desperate to cling onto any and every sign of youth, far more comfortable with what nature had to dish out?

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Nine Things You Should Know About Downton Abbey

Lisa writes: As inspired by our friend and fellow Downton Abbey fan, Sharon Greenthal, (Empty House, Full Mind,) here are nine things you should know about Downton Abbey.

Highclere Castle, Downton Abbey

1. Highclere Castle

The “above stairs” scenes are filmed at Highclere Castle, the 1830s great house designed by the same architect who designed the British Houses of Parliament. The similarities between the buildings can be seen in the sand-colored stone and Gothic Revival turrets. Since 1679, the family of the Earl of Carnarvon has had a home on this spot. Beneath the current house are the ruins of a medieval palace. The “below stairs” scenes are filmed at the famed Ealing Studios on set in West London.

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Is it Worth the Money?

Lisa and our good friend, Sharon Greenthal, who blogs at Empty House, Full Mind, asked the question “What is worth spending money on?” Money is a private and often touchy subject, yet the respondents were candid and their answers, revealing.  Here is the post appearing today on both blogs.

In the weeks between tossing out the turkey carcass and dragging the Christmas tree to the curb, the average American family is expected to spend $740 on gifts in this brief, intense shopping period. As the year winds down we will also give generously, writing checks for $79 billion in charitable donations or a quarter of our annual giving.

bank vault, money, bank

How we spend our money speaks to who we are and what we value. For each of us it is a trial and error process. We spend impulsively, and we live to regret the purchase. We save up carefully, and the object of our desire become obsolete or out of fashion. We buy things or experiences, we invest in education, and charity and with each step learn more about our personal relationships to money and more about ourselves.

How we spend our money is a sticky, complicated question that is burdened by the behavior of our family of origin and says something about the example we hope to set for our own children.

[Read more…]

Waiting for Downton Abbey Season 4 Premier: What I’ve Missed Most

Mary Dell writes: Lisa and I are among the millions of US fans who have spent the last 11 months pining for our favorite period drama. Downton Abbey Season 4 Premier is January, 5, a date already circled in red on my calendar.

Here is what I’ve missed the most during this long wait for the show to resume:

Downton Abbey cast, Downton Abbey Season 4 Premier

1. Theme Song

The gorgeous orchestration of the theme music by British composer John Lunn prepares viewers for the weekly feast of audible pleasure to come. While I have endured the wait for the program to resume, I have clicked on the YouTube recording, closing my eyes, and imagining the cast beginning to assemble at the manor house.

2. Opening Photo montage

Creator Julian Fellowes is a master of detail and the opening montage richly displays life in both the upstairs and downstairs quarters at Downton. Fellowes’ wonderful dialogue and highly textured use of period furnishings in this television production are of the caliber of feature film Gosford Park, a movie for which he wrote the script, winning a best screenplay Academy Award in 2002.

3. British History

Every Downton Abbey episode gives viewers a chance to absorb lessons in British history. The writers have already covered WWI, the influenza epidemic, the decline of the landed aristocracy, and the beginnings of the Irish Free State. Season Four is set in the Roaring twenties and a new Season Five begins production in 2014; we have much more to absorb.

4. Interior Design

I savor the details of Downton Abbey’s set design, and wonder what it would be like to live with the sweeping staircases, vaulted ceilings, and formal home furnishings. Every Sunday night I am inspired to take my own decor up a notch.

5. Parenting Lessons

Lord and Lady Grantham face challenges with their daughters and extended families that are surprisingly relatable. Watching the interpersonal dynamics presents vivid examples of parenting do’s and don’ts. The world may have changed much in the last ninety years but the challenges of parenting remain unaltered.

6. Grantham Clan

Downton has an expertly drawn cast that I love visiting every week. Fellowes made these characters real to me and I am invested in the lives of both the gilded Granthams and the downstairs help.

7. Smash Hit

Downton Abbey is a rare quality costume drama, the biggest success ever for PBS and ITV, where it is shown in the UK.  I recall watching every episode of Brideshead Revisited and Lisa fondly remember Upstairs, Downstairs. But those shows were televised in 1981 and 1971. Success like this does not come around often.

8. Gorgeous Clothes

The ladies’ period costumes are stunningly beautiful. From wedding gowns to sleeping attire, the luxurious fabrics and intricate accessories are breathtaking. Watching the show feels like playing dress-up. Just imagining the contents of the Grantham ladies’ closets makes me want to put long leather gloves and strands of pearls on my Christmas list.

9. Maggie Smith

Dame Maggie’s lines alone make the show worthwhile, and she dominates each and every scene. I lean into the TV whenever she appears to make sure I don’t miss a word (although I can count on seeing her in a Monday-morning meme with the best zinger of the previous evening.)

10. Dan Stevens’ Matthew Crawley

The hopes for happily ever after for our favorite upstairs couple ended with the Season Three finale. Though there is no doubt that Mary will thrive without Matthew, I can’t help but grieve for the what if’s in their lives together.

11. Date Night

Discovering a show that both my husband and I enjoy is a gift. On the evening of January 5, we will set a fire in the fireplace, pour two glasses of wine, and watch the Downton Abbey Season 4 Premier together. In our almost empty nest, watching this favorite show together has become our date night. I am counting the days until it returns.