“When Did You Know Your Dog Needed Pet Therapy?”

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.

Pet therapy, Paws for Patients, volunteer job, labrador, chocolate labrador

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 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 senior, 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.Plus,  I knew he would look dapper in the green vest. Little did I know that Moose would soon be issued business cards and an official photo ID.

Pet therapy, Paws for Patients, volunteer job, labrador, chocolate lab, labrador retreiver

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.

Pet therapy, Paws for Patients, volunteer job, labrador, chocolate lab, New York Presbyterian Hospital therapy dog, therapy dog, dog visiting hospital

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 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 or 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.



  1. happyoutlook says

    Great post and great picture of Moose!

  2. says

    Congratulations to Moose for his wonderful work. Congratulations to you for finding a way to bring meaning and fulfillment back into your life at this time of transition. You’re both inspiring!

    • says

      Volunteering is just such a good thing to do on so many levels. I am lucky to have found something that taps into my interests – talking to people and spending time with my dog. Working at the hospital has truly revitalized me so our visits there feel like therapy for all concerned. Thank you for your kind words, as always.

  3. Teresa Cleveland Wendel says

    Nothing like a dog to get a stranger to open up.
    I admire you for finding this niche, and for realizing such fulfillment.

    • says

      Thanks, Teresa, for your kind words. The key for me was to find a connection between things I enjoy – chatting with people and spending time with my dog – and a need. I agree that dogs help open doors with strangers which is true for our patients and staff, as well.

  4. says

    my sister has a rescued pit bull with three legs (her last owner threw her off a balcony). she too does volunteer work with nina and i can’t help but think that nina knows that when she needed comfort my sister found her and now nina gives comfort in return. my son once sent me a card that said “we give comfort and receive comfort, often at the same time”.

    • says

      The quote on your son’s card exactly sums up how I feel about working with Moose. Im glad your sister has Nina and happy for Nina, too. I cannot imagine such cruelty to an animal.

  5. says

    Our Lucy (King Charles Spaniel) currently has a full time job providing much needed “therapy” to Richard and me….but your post has encouraged me to someday share her therapeutic skills with others. Your wonderful writing now blends your interests into a perfect trifecta. Thank you for sharing!

    • says

      Cynthia, so glad to know that Lucy is your and Richard’s own personal therapist, especially now that your children are grown and flown. Thanks for visiting!!!

  6. Sleeping Mom @ Sleeping Should Be Easy says

    This is so awesome! I’ve always told myself that even if I were to hit the jackpot and never have to work for money, I would still volunteer my time to a cause I believed in.

    • says

      I didn’t start working with the dog until my kids had grown up and I had more time on my hands. There will always be great need in the world so you will have a chance in the future to help others – not that you don’t help everyone in your family every single day!

  7. says

    what a great idea. Dogs can be such a conversation starter. When I very occasionally walked a friend’s dog in the park I was surprised by the number of people who came up to me to ask about the dog – it was an entirely new world where strangers spoke to each other in London!

    • says

      So true, and I love talking to a stranger about my dog – a new audience for me. Thanks for visiting!

  8. Christine says

    What a wonderful article! Sounds like you were writing about my life – I have a child in college and starting high school soon. My dog and I became Pet Partners 18 months ago – we have business cards and ID’s to go with our visits. I, too, have been asked about my dog needing therapy!! Thanks for writing this and I will now to follow your blog – looking forward to reading more of what you write.

    • says

      I am amazed at how similar our life experiences are! I am so glad that our mutual therapy dog activities brought you to Grown and Flown and that you are following our empty (or semi-empty) nest blog. Thanks for subscribing and please, spread the word.

  9. liz mcq says

    wonderful story. reaffirms my conviction that our animals (for me especially dogs) have a way of balancing things in our lives. i am happy for you.

  10. says

    What a wonderful job you both have. But I loved your friend’s question: “when did you know your dog needed therapy”!

  11. says

    Great article! I would love for my dog to be able to do this, but I think he needs his own therapy dog! I do understand how therapeutic these dogs can be, though. I know how just sitting quietly near Dashiell, or hugging him can seem to slow down my breathing and create a sense of calm about me. Funny how these guys do that without even knowing how special they are.

    • says

      It is quite amazing to see how much Moose gives comfort to people. I’m so glad that Dashiell does the same for you!

  12. says

    In my mother’s assisted living home they have a resident live-in dog and parrot. Watching the residents enjoy these pets has made me want to look into volunteering with one of my dogs – the other is in desperate need of his own intensive therapy.

    • says

      The practice of using therapy animals in assisted living and hospital settings seems to be well established. I love volunteering with Moose and would encourage you to think about it – I get the comment about your other dog, too! We have had a few of our own that make me wonder if they could use a little time on the couch.

  13. says

    I love this story. I have often thought of doing the same with my Duncan, who is such a sweet and loving dog. I can understand how someone’s spirits can be lifted by getting a wet kiss or tail wag.

    • says

      Duncan looks like a sweet pup sitting there on your lap – I highly recommend the work which has brightened my life immeasurably. Thanks for the kind words, Helene.

  14. Carpool Goddess says

    Such a sweet face! And I love his business card! I can’t think of a better or more fulfilling thing to be doing. I’m so happy for you both.

    • says

      Thanks, Linda, I love working with Moose and his business card is a crowd-please at the hospital.

  15. Lisa says

    This sounds like such a great program! I was looking into a similar Pet Therapy program to volunteer for with my dog Charlie, however Pet Partners requires that the dogs are not allowed to be fed any form of a raw food diet and I don’t want to change a diet that is working for him.Do you happen to know of any other certification programs that do not have this requirement?


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