Many people might think of the gymnasium-sized room at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago as a sad place. As we entered, there was a teenage gunshot victim learning to walk again, an older women working hard to come back from a stroke, a young boy recovering from brain surgery and a young man dealing with a spinal cord injury following an accident. They were joined by professional therapists, family members and -- the reason for them all to meet -- animal-assisted therapy dogs and their handlers.
On this day, traffic had been terrible and we were running late. When we arrived, the session had already begun. We wanted to slip in quietly, but there's never any sneaking in with our dog Lucy. As the program leader was answering a serious question, in strolled Lucy, instantly announcing, "Wha hoo!"
A few minutes later, each patient in the room was paired with a dog. Animal-assisted therapy is goal directed by medical professionals, who may suggest tossing a ball to increase arm strength, for example.
We were teamed with the woman who'd had a stroke. For about 40 minutes, she petted Lucy (who was lying on a table at her side), talking on and on about her grandchildren, a recipe for peach pie, her neighbors in Indiana and the weather. About 30 minutes into the talkfest, my wife, Robin, turned and noticed two physical therapists pointing and looking more than a little surprised, even amazed.
As the session ended, they approached and pointed out to the patient, "This entire time you were petting the dog with the arm affected by the stroke."
"I was?" the woman said, less impressed by that than by Lucy's soft coat. "She's so soft and sweet. My cousin once had a dog like this," she recalled, launching into yet another story.
The therapists later explained that this patient had been so focused on what she thought she couldn't do, that they'd hit a brick wall and were at a loss about how to advance her therapy. She was depressed and reticent about talking. Apparently, she was so distracted by petting Lucy that she naturally began to do what people do around dogs -- let her guard down.
Some stories about animal-assisted therapy dogs are dramatic: Someone who never spoke following a brain injury or some other trauma does so only in the presence of a dog. Someone else is "awakened" from a coma by a barking dog. Other tales are more low-key, but just as compelling, as was ours that day.
All these years later, the patients and therapists in that room at RHC may not recall my name or Robin's, but they're sure to remember the little black-and-white dog named Lucy, who made them laugh.
The American Humane Association will sponsor the second annual Hero Dog Awards Nov. 8 on the Hallmark Channel. Top dogs have been nominated in eight categories: Guide Dog, Service Dog, Hearing Dog, Emerging Hero Dog, Military Working Dog, Law Enforcement/Arson Dog, Search and Rescue Dog, and Therapy Dog. Check out the participants and vote for America's No. 1 Hero Dog at http://www.herodogawards.org.
Last May, we lost Lucy, who was just shy of her 16th birthday. To help remember her, we began the Lucy Fund with the American Humane Association to help sponsor the Hero Dog Award for Therapy Dog. With support from Pfizer Animal Health, American Humane has supported recent studies to better understand the work therapy dogs can do, particularly for children with cancer.
I hope people -- in Lucy's memory -- will consider a contribution to support the Therapy Dog Award. Learn more at http://www.americanhumane.org/lucyfund.
(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is http://www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.)