You might think of this gymnasium-sized room at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago as being a sad place. There’s a teenage gun shot victim learning to walk again, an older women working hard to come back from a stroke, a young boy recovering form brain surgery and a young man dealing with a spinal cord injury following an accident. Also, in this room are professional therapists, family member and the reason for them all to meet, animal assisted therapy dogs with their human handlers.
On this one day, traffic was bad and we were running late. The program had already begun, and we wanted to sneak in quietly. But there’s never any sneaking in with our dog Lucy. As the program leader was answering a serious question, in walks our dog, instantly saying, “Wha hoo.”
No matter what anyone’s personal problems happened to be – at this moment, the entire room roars with laughter. At which point our miniature Australian Shepherd again repeats “Wha hoo” “Wha hoo.” Then she spontaneously decides the room needs a song, so she sings. Lucy’s disruption on this day – and on most days she participated in animal assisted therapy, was welcomed.
These people like didn’t feel very much like laughing 20 minutes ago, now they’re rolled over with pure joy.
A few minutes later everyone is paired up with a dog; there’s a dog for each person in the room. Animal assisted therapy is goal directed by medical professionals, who may suggest tossing a ball to increase arm strength, as an example.
We were teamed with the woman who had a stroke. For about 40 minutes she was petting Lucy (who lying on a table at her side), talking on and on, and on and on, and on and on about her grandchildren, a recipe for peach pie, her neighbors in Indiana and the weather. There weren’t many topics she didn’t bring up.
About 30 minutes into this talkfest my wife turned and noticed two physical therapists pointing and looking more that a little surprised, even amazed.
As the session ended they approached and pointed out to his woman, “This entire time you were petting the dog with the arm affected by the stroke.”
“I have?” she seemed less impressed by that than by Lucy’s soft coat. “She’s so soft and sweet. My cousin once had a dog like this,” as she launched into yet another story.
The therapists later explained that she had been so focused on what she thought she couldn’t do, they had hit a brick wall and were at a loss about how to advance her therapy. Also she was depressed, reticent to talk.
Apparently, she as so distracted petting Lucy, she naturally began to do what people do with dogs – she let her guard down.
Stories about animal assisted therapy dogs are often dramatic – people who never spoke as a result of a brain injury or some other trauma, but do so only in the presence of a dog. More than one person has been “awakened” from a coma with a barking dog. Other stories aren’t nearly as remarkable, but in their own ways just as compelling, as was ours on this day.
All these years later, must be people who may not recall my name or my wife’s name, but they sure remember the little black and white dog named Lucy who made them laugh.
The American Humane Association is celebrating the Second Annual Hero Dog Awards, on the Hallmark Channel, November 8. Top dogs have been nominated in eight categories: Guide Dog, Service Dog, Hearing Dog, Emerging Hero Dog, Military Working Dog, Law Enforcement/Arson Dog, Search and Rescue Dog, and Therapy Dog. Check out the participants and vote for America’s number one Hero Dog.
Last May, we lost Lucy, who was just shy of her 16th birthday. To help remember her, we began the Lucy Fund with the American Humane Association to help sponsor the Hero Dog Award for Therapy Dog. With support from Pfizer Animal Health, American Humane has supported recent studies to better understand the work therapy dogs can do, particularly with children who have cancer.
I hope people will consider a contribution in our dog's memory, modest or larger than modest to support the Therapy Dog Award - CLICK HERE.
©Steve Dale, Tribune Tribune Media Service