The Magic of Therapy Dogs

It’s a little too soon to be certain, but I think everything’s going to work out just fine. It isn’t easy caring for a baby at this stage in life. Just the lack of sleep alone is draining. Not to mention the constant movement, the bending, lifting, walking, and reaching of it all. This is good fatigue, though. After decades of stress-related chronic fatigue and insomnia I now feel rested after a good night’s sleep, even though it might not be quite long enough. Babies – in this case, puppies – wake up early.

Harry the Havanese joined us on April 24. He was selected based on his breed’s gentle characteristics. This is critical for therapy work. The goal is that Harry and I will be trained to provide care to those in need.

Sure, the learning curve would be steep. But if I learned nothing else from the nearly 35 years I spent within the corporate halls of America displaying my core competencies, using my bandwidth, leveraging competitive knowledge, dripping sweat equity, having ah-hah moments, and then finally doing a brain dump for two new hires as my position was bifurcated … well, let me tell you, I learned I needed a therapy dog immediately.

As a child, owning a dog was something I could only dream of. My mother wasn’t fond of pets, especially ones that might drag dirt into her meticulously clean home. I grew up learning how to keep a home clean the way homemakers instructed in the 1950s. There certainly weren’t any Magic Erasers or multi-action “cleaning bubbles” back then. Washing a floor was done with two pails and rag mops. No pets for us.

So when I purchased my first home about the time my son was eight years old, we got a dog. Zeb was a beautiful German Shepard/Lab mix. He became the best friend a boy could have. Zeb pulled sleds in the winter and bikes in the summer, making it impossible to ever walk him on a leash. But they had fun! For an only child, having a dog to pal around with is essential, in my view. Not only did my son have a buddy to play with, he also had someone to blame whenever things were broken. “How did my vase get broken!?” “I don’t know, the dog must have knocked it over.”

Zeb was my best friend, too. He slept beside my bed at night, rode shotgun while I worked my territory, swam against the incoming tide at the Wareham River, and introduced me to the joys of trying to wash away funk of a non-specific origin that even bleach couldn’t remove. When I felt sad, he’d lay his head on my lap. He was my protector and confessor. That dog knew things. No dog will ever be what Zeb was to me.

But I digress.

Harry is a Havanese. The breed’s soft coat and temperament are perfect for providing humans in need with warmth and love. Of course, training is key. Harry could easily go down the wrong path and become a gangster stealing hearts while nipping at heels.

Enter the trainer. This professional recently proved to me that you can read as many books as is humanly possible to consume on long winter days while watching reruns of The Dog Whisperer With Cesar Milan, and still do things terribly wrong.

At four pounds, mostly hair and bones, Harry is learning but, moreover, I am. I am learning that every movement I make and every word I say is shaping Harry’s behavior. If I fail, he fails. Talk about a demanding performance matrix.

Harry’s future is very bright. I foresee him bringing joy to the people we visit in nursing homes and similar facilities. I’m hoping and therefore will be working toward Harry’s inclusion at reading programs or other types of intervention for kids in need. The calming influence a dog like Harry may impart can’t be measured on a corporate Pareto chart.

But for now, Harry is learning that the bathroom is outside, what “no” really means, and what is allowed to be chewed (which does not include the rugs). He is learning to walk along with our adult dog Max, and that Max is in charge of the play dates.

This pup will grow to about 15 pounds, of which 10 will probably still be hair and bones. The breed hails from Cuba, hence “Havanese.” I’m thinking Harry is a lover, not a fighter. Max, on the other hand, hails from Wales, where the breed (Cairn Terrier) was developed to be ratters, hunting down and killing rodents for farmers. Max is definitely not a lover. But Max is a leader and a darned good one; well, except for his massive barking hatred for the FedEx and UPS trucks, but otherwise … yeah, and the trash truck, but really that’s … oh, and I almost forgot motorcycles … he’s a good leader.

Max from the first day slept through the night, knew the toilet was outdoors, and demanded very little of us except constant exercise. At night, after a day of patrolling the yard for varmints, he’ll pop up on the sofa beside me giving me a soulful knowing look. I’ll scratch his favorite spots and whisper sweet nothings into his waiting ears. This is just between the two of us. But his temperament isn’t well suited for hours of lying around being patted and cooed over. He considers that nonsense. Bring in the lover.

Harry is a tiny package of “What are we going to do now folks?” Yet, when placed in the arms of my mother, whose life in the nursing home revolves around finding the bravery to face another day of confinement in that alternate universe, he melts into her and stays peacefully placid. “I could get used to you,” she told him the other day. I witnessed the magic a dog possesses. I witnessed the gift of joy a dog brings just by being present and allowing a human to stroke its coat. I witnessed my dream slowly coming true: using a dog, this dog, to bring comfort to others. The other dogs were mine exclusively; Harry is for everyone.

Each morning for the last two weeks when Harry awakens at 5:15 and announces “It’s time to go outside,” I’m reminded that I ain’t so young anymore. But I’m happy, tired and happy. Dog magic is working on me, too.

By Marilou Newell

2 Responses to “The Magic of Therapy Dogs”

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  1. Katie Crowley says:

    I thought this little guy looked familiar! What a great article Marilou. I am inspired by your commitment, not only to Harry, but to those whom you haven’t necessarily even met yet but are determined to help by bringing this little lovebug into their lives!

  2. Karen Mastovsky says:

    I was totally thrilled to see a Havanese on the cover of the Wanderer. We are picking up our new Havanese in July, she was born just last weekend. She will be a companion to my daughter (11yr old) who is a stroke survivor and NEEDS a friend.
    Thanks so much for this article!!

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