Mary Dell writes: At lunch with a new friend, I chatted about attending pet therapy. Very delicately she asked “When did you know your dog needed therapy?” I must have skipped a few crucial details in discussing how I work with my dog to give, not receive, treatment.
Slipping the lanyard with the pair of IDs over my head, I walk to the car and open the door for my partner. He jumps in the back, waiting for me to lower the window and, soon enough, I see him in the rear view mirror – head out, ears flapping back, and tail rhythmically wagging. I swear he is smiling.
Moose, my chocolate Labrador, and I work in a hospital volunteer brigade dubbed Paws for Patients. I believe that while he is ministering to lots of people with fragile health, I am the true beneficiary of his efforts. Laboring as a therapy animal is Moose’s day job, one that takes up a few hours of his time each week. The balance of his leisurely life is spent with me, since we are the ones left in the very quiet house after my husband heads to the office and our daughter leaves for classes. As a high school student, with one foot out the door toward college, her departure will soon create a very empty nest.
When we are at work, the “pet therapy” we provide is, truthfully, just hanging out with people. Although the requirements are largely conversational, I try to approach each session with the professionalism I used to practice daily. Since I left the corporate world ten years ago, the only jobs I have held were on the PTA roster, just like so many other women I know who cycle through those while managing motherhood.
Somewhere between stuffing envelopes for the back-to-school packets and stuffing hotdogs into buns at the football concession stand, I started to crave work outside of the home. One child had graduated and the other had aged out of most of what the PTA focused on. Frankly, I was tired of it and knew the committee meetings and fundraisers needed younger women who could bring the enthusiasm I once had.
I also started to feel ridiculous admitting that I was a stay-at-home mom for a very self-sufficient teenager and a Labrador. But returning to my twelve-hour day, five days a week career held no appeal to me. While I love the Big City, I was so done with commuter trains.
I signed on with Paws for Patients after spying an article in the hospital newsletter entitled Volunteers with Dogs Needed. Feeling like I had just been thrown a proverbial bone, I called for an appointment to be evaluated (we passed) and started training. As for Moose, my guess is that he would have never rejected an opportunity for more attention or more treats. I knew he would look as dapper in the green vest he wears while working as Bubba Watson did in his green Masters jacket. Little did I know that Moose would soon be issued business cards and an official photo ID.
Once we passed the certification test established by a national non-profit called Pet Partners (formerly known as Delta Society,) the volunteer coordinator at the hospital assigned us to two units to visit weekly. Upon arriving, we head for the elevator and go up to the floor where we see our patients who suffer from a wide array of psychiatric illnesses. Once inside the locked doors, Moose stops where I ask him to for hugs or hellos. He leans into the men and women whose days are so long and soon, strokes lead to full belly rubs. For a dog, this kind of attention is hard to beat.
It is almost impossible to convey the transformative ability Moose has to lift the spirits of these patients. I am amazed at the ways in which my sweet Lab relates to the adults whose afflictions include schizophrenia, depression, addiction and most likely other illnesses that a layperson like me has never heard of. Some of the people we see are able to leave after a few weeks of short-term treatment. Others remain in their lock-down hallways for months and often longer. When we learn that a patient is being discharged for an adult home (for some) or back home (for others) we are thrilled to say good-bye; if they return we are broken-hearted for them. Moose greets all with equal affection and for that he is dear to me.
Now that I have a job again, I proudly discuss the work I do with all who ask (and many who do not but who politely listen anyway!) I try to recruit friends who have dogs and, especially, those who may be facing their own empty nests. What is most compelling for me is that, like our patients, I am also changed by the work. I have a lanyard with my ID. I have a professional certification. It is a volunteer job, but one for which I have the enthusiasm of my younger self.