Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Dog With A Job

Just like a giggling child can bring a smile to your face, so can an animal. How many times have you smiled at a dog walking past you on the street with his owner, or the dog who has his head hanging out the car window- pink floppy tongue flapping about in the breeze, or the cat who is peering out the window of your neighbor’s house while soaking up the sun sitting on the back of a couch. For these brief moments, animals can take us away from the busyness of life. They help us to be present.

Animals can be healers, reduce stress levels, minimize anxiety and provide therapeutic value in many health and educational environments. They accept humans unconditionally, which is a benefit in the healing journey. Our dog Toby, a Chesapeake Bay retriever provided me the gift of witnessing the richness that a dog can bring to another human through unconditional love. Toby made the dog Marley (from the movie Marley and Me) look like a saint.

We adopted Toby at age five from a local animal rescue organization, and shortly thereafter discovered that that he came with his own baggage and issues, which included breaking toilet tank lids, rearranging furniture, opening and emptying closets and hiding things, on an almost daily basis. Choosing not to give up on Toby, we called for help. Maggie a local and highly qualified K9 Behaviorist and Trainer discovered that Toby was a dog who needed a job.

Toby became a Pet Assisted Therapy Dog at a mental health hospital. While his role was to provide support in the recreational and therapy program, it also became therapy for the therapy dog. His behavior improved greatly at home. Every Wednesday for 4 ½ years he stepped into his purpose- he visited with patients offering unconditional love, 100% focus, and trust. The impact on patients varied from patient to patient. Toby’s presence on the unit (and his loud bark to announce he had arrived) brought patients out of their rooms, the general mood, and energy on the unit increased. Patients became more social with one another during the visits with Toby. In many ways, this dog acted like a connector, he brought people together, and, his presence became a safe topic of conversation. His desire to entertain the patients (through his ¾ summersaults, tossing the ball at patients to play fetch and sitting with his head on their lap) also encouraged laughter. And we all know that laughter reduces stress hormones and has a positive impact on health.

Toby at Work as a Pet Assisted Therapy Dog

There is a lot of research to substantiate that pet owners live longer and healthier lives. They are often more physically active because their pets require that of them. In fact, Dr. Dawn Marcus, a neurologist who is involved in pet assisted therapy through her dogs, has done extensive research on this very topic. Dr. Marcus also reported that animals can also reduce anxiety, assist with focus, improve the immune system, and provide extensive therapeutic benefits to healing.

Toby’s work has been chronicled in Chicken Soup for the Soul- What I learned from the dog (Sept 2009), in a story titled Volunteering From The Heart. Shortly after I wrote On Toby’s Terms,(Bettie Youngs Books, 2010) which is being turned into a major motion picture. Toby’s children’s book was released in 2011 Toby The Pet Therapy Dog & His Hospital Friends (Bettie Youngs Books, 2011) teaching children lessons about friendship, kindness and helping others, and how a pet therapy dog can make a difference.

The patients that Toby worked with at the hospital and the thousands of children that he met in schools experienced the benefits of a therapy dog’s whose mission in life was to leave pawprints on hearts everywhere he went.

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