How Comfort Dogs Comfort

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For as long as I can remember, every night when my dad would arrive home from work and turn the handle on the apartment door, my family’s 100-pound black Labrador, Maggie, would run full speed ahead towards it and launch herself onto him. It was her (slightly slobbery) way of welcoming him home. After my dad got sick, though, we decided we had to put an end to the ritual.

When he returned home from the hospital, weak from the blasts of chemotherapy he’d received, we were concerned that Maggie would knock him down. So I entered the apartment first and held Maggie by the collar, hoping I was strong enough to restrain her. As dad walked in I tightened my grip, ready for Maggie to fling herself at him. And Maggie did use all her might to break free from me. But then something amazing happened: she walked over to dad and started linking his fingers. She was gentle and restrained and yet still full of love. And from then on dad’s loyal four-legged companion remained by his side at all times, sometimes even nudging the port in his chest with her cold wet nose.

We thought Maggie was incredible—so intuitive! So understanding! And, to be fair, she was. But my family was not alone in our magical experience of our dog’s capacity for love and comfort when my dad was sick. She was a dog, and canines in general are impressive; in so many ways, dogs just know. And because they are such extraordinary creatures, they’re hired not only to assist the physically impaired (guide dogs for the blind, for example), but also to help those who are in need of emotional and psychological support.

Over 40 years ago, a nurse named Elaine Smith noticed the positive reactions that hospital patients had to a chaplain’s Golden Retriever who would go on rounds with him. Smith started taking dogs to nursing homes, where the dogs brought both companionship and comfort to the elderly. In 1976 she founded Therapy Dogs International, a volunteer organization that helps certify comfort dogs, known as “therapy dogs,” and makes them available to people who need them.

Now, dogs are welcomed in hospitals and in therapeutic settings, where they recognized for bringing happiness and psychological comfort. After the school shooting in Newtown, CT, a team of Golden Retrievers was brought into the classrooms to soothe the children who witnessed the tragedy. And after the Boston bombing earlier this year, dogs were brought to visit the victims in the hospital.

Dogs have the instinctive ability to sense when a person is in need of love and affection, and also to provide it. Maggie didn’t know any of the details of my dad’s illness, but she did know that he needed love—and she gave him that, fully and selflessly.

For more information on comfort dogs, visit Therapy Dogs International, Pet Partners, or Lutheran Church Charities.

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