It started as a wild possibility.
Maybe my chocolate lab could be a therapy dog.
I watched him bound wildly around the yard and imagined him knocking over an elderly man in a nursing home hallway.
When he actually passed the therapy dog certification, I was floored, but glad. I had wanted to volunteer for a while and was glad to find a program that would allow me to give back to the community, while giving my dog something to do as well.
It’s now been six years that I’ve been volunteering with Blue in a pet therapy program. We’ve been to nursing homes, hospitals, and even college campuses. What started six years ago as a crazy idea, a slight possibility, and maybe an occasional hobby, has turned into one of the most influential decisions in my life. In the past six years of serving as his partner (because Blue is really the star of our team… I’m just his sidekick), Blue has taught me invaluable lessons about myself, about life, and about love, many of which, have been painfully hard to learn, but as essential as learning to stand on your own two feet, or in Blue’s case, to sit on command.
Lesson # 1: Dogs have a Way of Connecting to People Who Can’t Otherwise be Reached
Extensive research has been done about the relationship between dogs and humans, and the ways in which dogs are able to calm anxiety, ease depression, even detect the presence of disease. The data is impressive, but seeing it for yourself is indescribable.
I was visiting with Blue at a nursing home when we approached a woman in a wheelchair. Her eyes were glazed over and she was staring straight ahead, not moving, not seeming to have any awareness of her surroundings. A staff member at the nursing home asked her if she wanted to pet Blue. There was no response. The woman’s glassy eyes continued to stare right through me from where I stood in front of her. I tried to engage her as well, introducing myself and Blue, but there was no response. I wished her a good day and was about to leave, when Blue decided he’d give it a try. He put his head on her lap, and it was like electricity flying across a synapse. Her eyes came into focus, she looked at me, and then down at him, and her formerly immovable hand began to pet his head in slow, loving strokes.
She never spoke to either one of us, but something about Blue’s presence brought her back from wherever she was lost, even if just temporarily, in a way that no other human in the room could have.
Lesson # 2: Never Take Anyone for Granted.
Amelia was one of our favorite residents at the nursing home. She was bubbly and alert, with perfectly coiffed black hair. She was talkative and animated and never missed a pet therapy visit; until the day she wasn’t there.
“Where’s Amelia?” I asked a staff member. Her response was to cast her eyes down to the ground in sadness.
I couldn’t imagine that Amelia was gone. I had just seen her the month before and she seemed completely fine.
I felt the same unexpected feeling of betrayal at the unfairness of life the day another one of our favorite residents at another facility, Robert, was missing from his favorite spot in front of a hallway window. He too was gone, taken by the flu. The month before, he was alert and thrilled to see us, sitting as always in his plaid shirt and denim overalls. I was sure the last thing I had said to him had been, “We’ll see you next month.” I had taken it for granted that Robert and Amelia would always be there to greet us, but when they were gone, I was left with the regret that we hadn’t spent more time with them, or learned more about them, or done more for them. The regret still stays with me, inextricably tied to the memories of their smiles.
Lesson # 3: Homesickness is a Real Sickness.
Anyone who’s been to college knows it’s hard. Rigorous classes, immense amounts of homework, and the pressure to fit in weigh down on you daily. Then, there’s the homesickness. We started attending pet therapy sessions at college campuses during midterms and finals weeks as part of various campus-wide wellness events. When I arrived at my first event, my jaw fell open. There was a line of 100 students waiting to pet our therapy dogs. Literally, teens standing in line to pet my dog, my dog who I can pet whenever I want, though admittedly, too often I shoo him away carelessly in favor of work or chores. These college students were willing to stay and wait outside in the chilly spring air just for a chance to interact with a loving therapy dog that too often I disregarded.
I thought the visit would be fun and lighthearted, a welcome change from some of the more emotionally straining nursing home visits. I was shocked to find that many of college students who came out to meet with us, were broken hearted and just as much in need of love as the nursing home residents suffering from loneliness.
The students were homesick, missing their families, missing their own dogs, just trying to get through finals to earn the reprieve of a trip home. With tears in their eyes, they’d hug the dogs, thanking us effusively and saying things like, “I needed this,” “I feel so much better now,” “This is the best I’ve felt in weeks.”
During those college visits, I realized that homesickness is just as much a sickness as other bodily ailments. It can break you down, making you fatigued, and weary, and sad. Hadn’t I been homesick at college too? Had I forgotten that quickly what it felt like to be hundreds of miles away from everything and everyone familiar, and how much it helps to find a hand outstretched in support through all that time and space? I won’t forget again.
Lesson # 4: Children are the Bravest Beings on Earth
I’ve always been amazed by the resilience of the hospital patients we’ve met. Before our first visit with patients on the hospital’s cancer treatment floor, I expected the visit to be laden with sadness and the palpable sensation of death hiding around every corner, waiting for its chance to strike. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The patients were cheerful, talkative, and appreciative. They were glad for our company, wanting to tell stories about their pets and ask questions about Blue. Some have even been willing to sneak him scraps from their food trays (“Oh thanks, but he really doesn’t need any ice cream—uh…okay, sure, no, it does look like he likes it…”).
Even more impressively resilient than the adult cancer patients we’ve met, are the children. I have seen children, tethered to infusion devices, playfully rubbing Blue’s belly, unbothered by the drugs coursing through their veins, just glad for the company and the chance to meet a new friend.
I have seen toddlers, uncertain how to react to the presence of a 70-pound dog, likely feeling miserable in response to their disease and the drugs, bravely, and slowly, approach him, tapping just three fingers on top of his head to see what would happen. When Blue reacted with a thumping tail, they’d place their whole hand on his head, then pull away. More tail thumping. Then a quick hug, more tail wagging, and a beaming smile from the child who realized he had just done something brave, not realizing, he was doing something brave every single day by battling cancer.
The bravery and dauntlessness of the children at the cancer center has taught me that as I’ve aged and learned hard lessons about love, and loss, and homesickness, and how unfair life can be, I had lost some of my own bravery.
I like to think, though, that Blue helps me to be brave in the moments when I’m not. After all, he also lost Amelia and Robert too, and other loved ones from our lives. He’s been away from home, and homesick while I’ve left him to go on vacation. He’s also had cancer, and survived an invasive surgery. Through it all, he’s never given up on his work as a therapy dog, and he’s never given up on me.
His fortitude and commitment to giving back to others reminds me to do the same, even when life is hard. Even when I think my burdens are too heavy to bear, I remember that there is always someone fighting a harder battle, and if we can do anything to make their day a little better, a little brighter, than that’s what we’ll do.
And we’ll do it together.