Whether it is from a lick of their tongue or simply resting their head on a grieving person’s lap, dogs have an amazing power to heal. When a loved one is lost because of a tragic event or a long illness, humans tend to turn to their four-legged companions to help them through their grief. Hospitals, nursing homes and hospices have therapy dogs for this very purpose. These animals are specifically trained to help people deal with grief.
The idea of therapy dogs came about during World War II, to help soldiers who had just returned home from the war. More recently, these dogs–trained specifically for the purpose of therapy–have been brought in to help patients dealing with cancer, learning disabilities, autism and even stroke. Funeral homes have even started having therapy dogs on hand to help families with the grieving process. Families who have lost loved ones suddenly can relate to the havoc that grief brings into their lives and a dog, whether it is a trained therapy dog or a rescue, can help bring comfort and stability.
Therapy dogs have also been brought in to help children struggling with literacy. This new program has really taken off in New York, where libraries employ these dogs. Therapy dogs who go to an Auburn library put the children at ease and make learning a more enjoyable experience.
This year, one of the dogs competing at the Westminster Dog Show, Josey, a winner of the American Kennel Club, is also a therapy dog. The two-year-old Rottweiler is not a typical show dog, although she has the breeding, with her father being a former champion himself. Josey was specifically trained as a therapy dog. Her owner, Hollee Russell, a Medevac nurse, was looking for a therapy dog to go with her own animal that had been traumatized. Mrs. Russell’s first dog had been through a vicious dog attack and a tornado; like his human companion, he was grieving and needed help healing. The behaviorist she took him to suggested a female dog that was both strong and confident, which led Mrs. Russell to Florida and Josey. Josey’s first job then when she came to live with the Russells was to help her companion. As she matured, the trainer suggested to Mrs. Russell that Josey would be a good show dog. But showing is very expensive and the Russells, first and foremost, wanted a pet. Josey competes less often than most of the dogs which will be featured at the Westminster Dog Show.
When Josey is not competing, she travels with Mrs. Russell. Both dog and human average 92 hours of therapy work a year, mostly with hospitals. Mrs. Russell stated in an interview with local press that she especially enjoys bringing Josey to the children’s hospital where Josey likes to lie down on the floor so that she is not bigger than the children, and lets them rub her belly.
Children are not the only ones who benefit from therapy dogs, though. In Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Canine Angels is making life better for canines and their new owners. The nonprofit specifically works with rescue dogs, nurturing them and their natural gifts, and then places them in homes where they can offer the most benefit; veterans returning from the war and seniors who have recently lost a spouse are just a few of the kinds of people to benefit from dogs at Canine Angels. Canine Angels also has a specific therapy program that works with the local schools, hospices and nursing homes.
Grief remains one of the biggest reasons why therapy dogs are becoming more and more popular, despite the concept having been around for over 60 years. Dogs have the healing power to help people overcome their grief.
By Rachel Woodruff