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

12 Best Reasons for Joining the PTA

Mary Dell writes: I survived my term as PTA president. Without a doubt, it was one of the hardest jobs I ever signed up for, including those I got paid to do. My family questioned my sanity, wondering what led me to jump into the deep end of parent volunteerism. I had my own doubts, too, often when I was on the recipient end of an unhappy mom’s rants.

kids art, 12 Most, joining the PTA
In retrospect, I found great value in answering the PTA call for help and recommend it to others, if done for the right reasons. Here are 12 Most Mutually Beneficial Reasons for Joining the PTA.

1. Be a fly on the wall

Going to your children’s school to work as a volunteer gives you a fly on the wall perspective. You get an unscripted view of everyone from the principal to the custodian. It is fascinating to watch the kids who are practiced in ignoring parents on campus; seeing them in their element is priceless.

2. Pitch in, meet the players, make connections

Examine your motivations. Good reasons are to help shoulder the burden of work and to become acquainted with the school, teachers, and other parents, especially those who have kids the same age as yours.

[Read more…]

World Autism Day 2013: A Conversation with Bob and Suzanne Wright, Co-Founders of Autism Speaks

You will have many, many chances to make contributions of time or money to different worthy causes. In some special cases, you, too, will have to ask the question, If not me, then who?

                     -Bob Wright, 2007 commencement speaker at Holy Cross College

Autism Speaks, Bob and Suzanne WrightLisa writes: Bob and Suzanne Wright have had their lives transformed in ways that most of us cannot imagine.  A decade ago, Bob Wright was vice chairman of General Electric, CEO of NBC/Universal and considered one of the most successful media executives of his time. Yet at the pinnacle of his corporate success his life began to change.

In 2004, Bob and Suzanne Wright were concerned grandparents helping their daughter with their grandson, who had an undiagnosed affliction. By 2005, their family was privately struggling to deal with the specter of autism, something about which they had almost no knowledge.   By 2006, the Wrights had brought together autism organizations from around the country into their newly founded Autism Speaks and had plunged into a national awareness campaign. And by 2007, Suzanne had addressed the United Nations and Bob had testified before Congress on the need for research into this developmental disorder. It was a path taken with almost frightening speed and yet the Wrights say that they are never moving fast enough.

The couple have become world leaders in advocating for Autism.  They have created a rallying cry for research, care, treatment and national and global focus. In changing their lives the Wrights have forever changed the lives of millions of others. [Read more…]

Better than a New Puppy Under the Christmas Tree

Mary Dell writes:  How often have your kids begged you for a dog?  Maybe your children are like our daughter, who replied “a puppy” whenever she was asked what she wanted for her birthday or for Christmas.  Though my husband and I are dog lovers, and have owned several Labradors during our marriage, we resisted her pleas for a puppy of her own until she became old enough to manage the dog it would become. In the meantime, we discovered a different, and much more satisfying way to grant her wish.

Guiding Eyes puppies in training, training puppies to be guide dogs, blond labrador retriever puppies running

When she turned seven, our family became “puppy socializers” for the Guiding Eyes for the Blind (GEB), an internationally accredited guide dog school in Yorktown, New York. Since that June day when we drove home with Jennifer and Jonquil, our first pair of Labrador guide-dogs-in-training, our daughter began to learn about taking responsibility for young dogs.

Labrador pups, puppies, black lab, playing with puppies

As puppy socializers, we care for two, six-to-nine week old Labradors and treat them as if they are our own, but for just a few days.  Once our shift ends, we return them for testing to see if they have the personality traits that could make them good (saintly, in my mind) guide dogs. Evaluating after home socializing has vastly improved GEB’s ability to predict which dogs have the right stuff to enter the next phase of training.

While I truly love hosting the Labrador puppies, they create chaos within their pen, which happens to be in the middle of the kitchen. But for our daughter, cuddling has always trumped the mess. Climbing into their fenced space, she hugs each new puppy, plays with both and often holds one until he falls asleep on her lap.  She feeds and walks the pair and, ever so gently, places one into the outstretched arms of an eager friend.


But she has also had puppies chew on her fingers, and nibble on pajama pants legs.  She’s heard them cry and yowl, loudly, for 45 minutes while we drive them home from the GEB breeding center  She has watched them play with their water dish, drenching papers she has just laid down.  She has walked them and brought them back indoors only to see them pee and poop, again, on those freshly laid newspapers. In sum, she has learned much about dog ownership. She has also come to understand another lesson. While playing with each new Labrador puppy – 30 by my count – she grew up learning about volunteerism.

When she turned 16, she asked her friends and family to consider donating to Guiding Eyes instead of bringing her a gift for her birthday. As she grows older, and increasingly makes her own decisions about how to spend her time (and money), she has learned the importance of  both financial and the roll-up-your-sleeves way to help others.

She absorbed this message while holding the leashes for Jennifer and Jonquil, Harriet and Hawaii, Una and Uncle, Mandrake and Moose and so many other adorable pups. As I think back on Christmas gifts past, I believe that one of the most enduring presents our daughter received was not delivered on any particular December 25th. Instead, she discovered (and we nurtured) a volunteer opportunity that allowed her little girl love of puppies to blossom into a more mature dedication to others less fortunate.

Teaching kids about the importance of volunteering - one puppy at a time!

guide dog puppy, guide dog training, puppy socializer, blond labrador retriever puppy

(Photo of puppies in their training harness courtesy of the Guiding Eyes for the Blind.)


The Clinton Global Initiative and Foundation Mobilize a Day of Action for New York

Lisa writes: We are a deeply caring nation. But when a story of trauma slips from the front pages, it can be all too easy to forget that those living in the wake of the tragedy are still suffering. On Sunday some friends asked me to join them as they went to the Rockaways for a Day of Action for New York organized by the Clinton Global Initiative, Clinton Foundation and Team Rubicon (whose mission is to work with veterans to respond to disaster situations.)

Team Rubicon led the way. They have been in the Rockaways for weeks and are committed to staying until the job is done.

Day of Action for New York, Rockaways, Clinton FoundationLet me just start by saying that the Clinton organizations have shown their caring in so many ways and in a few short days gathered over 1,000 volunteers to work with homeowners cleaning up the mess the Hurricane left behind three weeks ago. [Read more…]