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Me and My Buddy, Therapy Dog

By: Renae Hamrick, RVT

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Dogs love to be man's best friend; to comfort, to play with, and to love humans. It's a title that we take seriously, and we strive to bring smiles to the faces of our human friends. As a therapy dog, it is my job to proudly wag my tail, put on a silly doggy grin, and use my warm heart to bring peace and strength to those who are feeling weak and ill. As much as I like to roll in mud, chew on toys, and run around chasing squirrels, there is no greater joy for me than visiting the hospital and helping the human doctors with their patients by giving my unconditional love.

It all began about 5 years ago when my mom decided she wanted to find a dog for animal-assisted therapy. After some research, she began her quest for the perfect therapy dog. She's either very lucky or a great detective because she found me! She adopted me and began my therapy dog training. I was already quite skilled at delivering smiles and happiness, but my mom felt I needed a little brushing up on obedience and socialization. Of course, I felt I was already a talented, intelligent dog, but brushing up meant spending time with my mom and building our human-dog bond, so I was excited. We went to pet stores and mom asked other people to pet me and visit with me, so that I would become comfortable with strangers. I guess no one told her there are no strangers to a therapy dog. She reminded me of all the obedience commands, and we even took an agility class to make us a closer team. To prepare for the therapy dog test, mom put me in unusual situations to see how I would react. My tail and ears were pulled, people yelled around me and dropped things near me, I had to walk past piles of food without eating it (that wasn't easy), and I had to be polite around my canine peers. There were many tasks that were sometimes challenging - even for me! I passed the therapy dog test, and I got a certificate and a big, yellow tag that declares me a therapy dog. I wear it with pride.

Because of my hard work, I get to visit a hospital once a week and show off my skills. I always know when that day is here because my mom draws a bath to make me soft and clean for my patients. As soon as I hear the water running, I come jump into the tub. Mom laughs at my eagerness and tells me how good I am. When I'm all groomed and handsome, she dresses me in my therapy dog vest and my hospital ID badge. This is when I nearly burst with happiness.

A typical visit to the hospital begins with smiles and cuddles before I'm even into the building. The staff knows me by name, and they are so excited to see me. I wag my tail and prance about the halls of the hospital, pleasing the people around me. My mom says I bring down the blood pressure and heart rates of those I visit. I'm not really sure what that means, but I do know that I make people feel better, and I'm doing my job well. We make our way through the first waiting room. Kids, who are bored from all the waiting, run to give me hugs. Adults, who are nervous about being at the hospital, light up because they don't expect to see a four-legged creature here. I let them pet my freshly bathed coat, and I give them my paw to shake. Some folks like to tease me and say my job is easy. It might come naturally to me, but I know it is an extremely important line of work.

We hop on the elevator for a ride to our next stop. People on the elevator are surprised that I don't get scared by the movement. If I spoke better human, I would remind them that I am a professional. At the end of the ride, it is time to visit the sick patients and those who are recovering from surgery. Because I am short, my mom lifts me up so people lying in bed can pet me. Sometimes I even get to cuddle next to them on their beds. Of course, I have to be careful not to step on sore body parts and medical equipment. My mom helps me with that. People pet my head and tell me I am adorable and soft. I wag my tail to thank them. Being with patients will often bring up stories of other pets. The patients also talk to my mom about my age and breed, my history, my hobbies, etc. Pets are a common interest and easy to talk about. It is kind of like talking about the weather, only pets are a much more interesting and positive topic. Petting me and talking about animals helps get the patient's mind on something other than illness.

Next, we visit family members of patients in surgery. They are sitting in a waiting room anxiously anticipating information from the medical staff. Imagine their surprise when I trot into the room! Smiles and hugs abound. Again, I lift spirits and change moods.

Drug and alcohol rehabilitation is our final visit. This is my favorite because many patients have been here for an extended period of time and are missing their own pets. It's my job to remind them how much their pets love them and miss them. When I step off the elevator, the staff exclaims, "Buddy's here!", and everyone comes to pet me. One of my proudest moments of my career comes from visiting here at the rehabilitation center. After some emotional visits with the patients, my mom received a thank you letter from the hospital staff. It said that they had a particularly difficult patient who had not been responding to his treatment and wasn't doing well recovering from his addiction. He began to cry and told the staff he hadn't felt love for a long time and no one ever wanted to be around him, until my visit. I gave him the love and strength he needed to recover. Giving unconditional love to people is a great feeling, and so is getting it back. My mom says that good feeling is the power of the human-animal bond.

Whether it's a profession or a hobby, dogs are givers of love and comfort. Some show it in a polite way, with a tail wag and a snuggle. Others prefer to shout it loudly by inviting themselves into laps and giving messy kisses. We may not all show affection the same, but we all are sincere. Inside every dog there is a generous spirit; inside every dog there is therapy.

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