Therapy Dogs: Changing the Energy in the Room
David Frei is America’s foremost authority on all things canine and the co-host of the National Dog Show on NBC since its inception in 2002. A member of the Kennel Club of Philadelphia, he developed and is also co-host of the Beverly Hills Dog Show on NBC, and before that, the longtime co-host of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on USA Network.
When a dog walks into the room, the energy changes. People smile, people talk, people think about things other than any problems they may have. This can only help them feel better.
A Bible scripture says it like this: “A faithful friend is the medicine of life.”
And that tells you why therapy dogs work.
I started a therapy dog charity in about 2004 in New York City and called it, appropriately so, “Angel on a Leash.” About four years later, I got my first toy dog, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. I named her Angel. She was a feisty little princess – probably equal parts feisty and princess – and she fit right in with my two Brittanys in the family. I fell in love with her immediately and joined Toy Dogs Anonymous.
Angel quickly graduated from her therapy dog training class and we went right to work visiting people and children in need in various healthcare facilities in New York City.
At the time, Angel on a Leash had just started a pilot program in the Women’s Health unit at the famous Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. It was a perfect place for her to visit, she fit right into the beds with the patients, after all.
Angel’s first stop there on her Monday night visits was always at the nurses’ station, where she might show them a few tricks and get them smiling and laughing, which is a nice break for them from a tough job. It was good for all of us and a good “warm-up” for our patient visits.
At her size, she fit right into the beds at Memorial Sloan Kettering with patients who needed her, with women who have been through or were facing major, life-changing surgeries. Often, when we walked into a room, the patient would start to make room in her bed for Angel.
We never knew what we were going to find when we walked into a room at Sloan Kettering. The census that we got at the start of the visit only said “yes” or “no” next to each patient’s name, indicating how they responded to the canvasser earlier in the day about a visit from a therapy dog later. The patient might have been there for a checkup, for treatment, for surgery, or for something else. She may have had her surgery already or may be getting ready for surgery the next day.
Some of the patients were in good spirits, some were hurting, and some were scared. They may have been there before, they may have just checked in, or they may have been there for a week. It was not my job to ask them about any of that. We were there to visit in the moment, to give them something other than the challenges that they may be facing to think about, talk about, smile about.
That is one of the things that dogs are so good at – they live life in the moment. So do cancer patients.
It was obvious in our visits when the outlook was grim, or worse, when someone was getting ready to die. Often, the room was filled with people and the patient was weak. Often, the patient still wanted to see Angel, or her family may have wanted to get Angel in there to give them all one final smiling moment.
One such night, we walked into a room, and there were at least 12 people in there, breaking hospital rules that were meant to be broken at a time like this, with parents, husband, children, sisters, brothers, grandchildren and friends. Tonight, as always, they all reacted to Angel and that created a little buzz in the room.
I knew the patient from previous visits. “Hi, Reina. You really have a full house tonight. Is this a good time for a visit from us?” That question was really directed at the family, who probably knew best what was right for the moment.
“Yes,” she said softly. “Yes,” said several of the others in the room, and they made a path for us to get to Reina’s side. I could hear lots of sniffles and soft crying. My guess was that they had all been called to Reina’s bedside for a final good-bye.
“Is this Angel?” one of them asked.
“Yes. Did Reina tell you about Angel?” I asked.
“She told us all about her. She loves Angel, and we are so glad you are here for her,” came an answer, kind of the final product of several voices.
“Well, we are glad to be here for her, too,” I said. “Let’s see if we can fit Angel in here.”
I laid down our towel on the bed. I could see a few tubes, and I knew that Reina was fragile and that we needed to be very careful. I set Angel down at Reina’s side. I could hear and see cell-phone cameras shooting away, and I could hear a little more crying, almost happy crying, as they saw Reina reacting to Angel.
Reina smiled, and I took her hand, placing it on Angel’s neck. “How’s that?” I asked. She smiled to indicate that it was just fine. She tried to sit up a little more, but it hurt her. “Just stay right there; we will get her closer,” I said. Her husband helped her move a little bit, and I moved Angel a little closer. She sat quietly, looking right at Reina.
This was another of those times where nothing needed to be said; I could just let Angel carry the moment. I was giving all of my attention and energy to keeping Angel right where she was and keeping Reina’s hand on her. Reina was smiling and speaking softly to Angel in Spanish. I was thinking that, tonight, Angel was understanding everything Reina was saying, even in Spanish. Her tail was wagging softly, and that got an audible reaction and a few more tears from the room.
Reina didn’t have much strength at that point, and after several minutes I kind of felt that Angel and I should move along and give the family their time with her. I knew she wasn’t going to last much longer.
I said a little prayer for Reina to myself, squeezed her hand gently, and then gathered Angel up. Reina smiled and said thank you and then tried to lean forward to Angel. I moved Angel closer. Reina softly put her hand on Angel’s head, and I lifted Angel up to eye level. Reina softly drew Angel to her and kissed her.
Angel sent Reina off on her final journey by licking her face.
Everyone was crying and I was fighting back tears myself. “Godspeed, sweetie. God loves you, and so does Angel.”
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