During Pet Therapy, My Dog Does the Talking

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: How Moose communicates during his pet therapy visits will inspire you.

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 hope 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.

Pet Therapy: How Moose communicates during his pet therapy visits will inspire you.

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: How Moose communicates during his pet therapy visits will inspire you.



  1. Janie Emaus says

    What a fantastic program.

  2. Emily says

    Yay Moose (and what a face he has!)…as you know I can relate to this post very much and it now makes me more eager to get back to being a pet therapy team with Matilda. My son has had visits by therapy dogs during a few of his hospital stays, so it has even more meaning for me now. Thank you for sharing Moose’s story — and yours.

    • says

      Emily, I am so happy to know that your son was visited by therapy dogs during some of his stays. I am sure that brightened his day. I hope that you and Matilda will be back into making your own visits someday soon.

  3. Jenny says

    Great story, Mary Dell…brought tears to my eyes too!

  4. says

    MaryDell, if this is not the love of God, I don’t know what is.
    God bless you, and Moose.
    I have loved a Lab.
    I know how rambunctious they can be: their spirits are unquenchable.
    Moose is indeed a GOOD dog.

    • says

      Thanks, Susan, I do feel like I can bring a moment of peace to our patients through Moose. Yes, I thinks labs are special and I see that you believe that, too. I appreciate your heartfelt words.

  5. says

    What a lovely program and what a great dog! I love my weird little dog, but he would be useless in such a situation. He’s all nerves and panicked bravado, so he’s a purely private therapy dog.

    • says

      I am not sure our younger dog would be able to visit strangers in a public place. The trainer saw something in Moose beneath his lively puppy behavior that has proven true all these years. Not every dog has the right temperament but they can still be great pets. Good luck with your pup.

  6. Helene Cohen Bludman says

    You are Moose are making a difference in peoples’ lives, Mary Dell. Bless you for taking time out of your busy life to donate time and affection to the patients in this program. Your gentle manner is certainly very soothing to them, and Moose obviously provides the entertainment. A perfect pair.

    • says

      Thanks, Helene, you are so sweet! Like most volunteer workers, we receive so much in return through spending time with others. I feel honored every time I walk up the stairs to the hospital to be able to bring Moose to see our patients.

  7. says

    Oh, how I loved reading this. I grew up with labs and have always been a dog lover but since we lost my last dog I cannot bring myself to get another. Moose is so special; I can tell by your words and I can tell by his expression in the photo. You are both making a big difference in people’s lives.

  8. says

    Thanks, Sheryl, for your kind words. Moose is a very attentive dog and he is unbelievably sweet and patient. Visiting our patients means much to me, and he loves it, too.

  9. says

    Thank you for sharing this post. My mother suffered with Schizophrenia and her dog Max was a God send. I am so glad you are reaching out to these people who suffer so much. You are an inspiration!

    • says

      Mary, thank you for your kindness in this comment. I am so sorry for your mom’s illness but glad to know that Max offered her companionship.

  10. says

    What a great post! I have a beautiful golden retriever at home who I adore. Sometimes when I come home after having a rough day, there’s my little girl (my dog) so excited to see me. This is almost therapy for me! What a great program! Thank you for such a heart warming post.

    • says

      Our dog, Moose (not surprising) and Gus, our 3 year old, offer us much companionship and comfort so I understand what you mean. thanks for your comment.

  11. says

    As a fellow dog lover I am so moved by your experience with Moose. The patients must look forward to your visits with so much joy. Thank you for all of your hard work.

    • says

      Sharon, it is a pleasure to take Moose and see how much he lifts spirits in the hospital. The security guards and staff seem to enjoy him being there, too, so I know he is doing his part!

  12. WWK says

    I loved this post, Mary Dell. Dogs are such natural connectors to people and new experiences. Sounds like everyone has benefited from this program. What an inspiring piece!

  13. Carpool Goddess says

    I am so touched by this piece, Mary Dell. You and Moose are doing such a wonderful thing for these patients. I want to hug him (and you) too!

  14. says

    I had saved this post to read this weekend Mary Dell. And I am so glad I did. I also teared up, remembering my work as a music therapist at a halfway house kind of facility in Dallas for chronic schizophrenic patients. You and Moose give them so much and of course, I understand that you receive an incredible amount as well. There’s just nothing like that kind of perspective. I hope we all are inspired by the woman who gets Moose to that hospital every Monday!

  15. says

    Oh, Mary Dell. I am so glad I asked you on Instagram about Moose and pet therapy, and that you directed me here. Wiping a tear from my eye, I want to let you know how powerful this post is for me.

    The urge to want to help others landed you in a strange place at first, but a place where you ended up touching the lives of countless people. And Moose? An extraordinary fellow who is an amazing and loving creature that G-d has bestowed on us, you and those patients. You both are doing miracles for others, perhaps in ways you don’t even know about.

    I apologize if my comment sounds a bit corny, but this post really touched my heart.
    I am going to share it with my cousin in Texas who has had countless animals of her own over the years, and has dedicated her life to animal rescue in her area. She has taught me so much, and I know she will love reading this post.

    Thank you.

    • says

      Cathy, thank you so much for these kind comments and I am so happy you have passed our blog onto your cousin. There is much need everywhere and finding a way and place to volunteer is transformative….certainly has been for me.