My dog Oliver has never had an education or formal training, much less earned a college degree. Yet, he has had so much experience visiting long term care facilities that I laughingly refer to him as “doctor.”
I’m not kidding. People of all ages, regardless of whether they are cognitively impaired, paralyzed or depressed; they all respond to Oliver when he comes to visit.
Let me explain. One day, about a year ago I decided to take him along with me when I went to visit a friend’s dad. He had been recovering from heart by-pass surgery and had been transferred to a local rehab hospital here in Baltimore. It was located right down the street from where I live; an easy walk, so I decided to visit him.
As I was leaving the house, Oliver whined and cried at the door. I guessed that he wanted to go with me and decided on the spur of the moment to let him come along. I already knew that they allowed dogs, so I figured they would let us in for a visit, and they did.
Mr. Smith was sitting up in bed when we arrived, but he didn’t look very happy. There were several monitors, all humming and whirring that surrounded the room, showing blood pressure, heart and vital signs. The TV was also turned on, but he wasn’t watching.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi,” he responded.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
He yawned. “OK”.
I tried again. “How are you feeling?” I asked.
“I want to go home,” he said.
At this point I didn’t really know what to do. I certainly hadn’t expected him to be so despondent.
But Oliver, being a dog, didn’t pay any attention to appropriate social cues. He just took it upon himself to jump into the bed with Mr. Smith. This disrupted everything of course: water, newspapers, a vase of wilted flowers. While I was floundering around under the bed, cleaning up the mess, Oliver was busy licking Mr. Smith.
And, Mr. Smith started to laugh, enough that he actually started coughing, which brought a nurse into the room.
“Thank goodness,” she said.
“What?” I asked. I had now come out from under the bed and was holding the remnants of the newspaper, now soaking wet. It was soggy.
“He needs to cough,” she explained. “It helps to loosen the phlegm from his lungs, and he hasn’t been willing to cough. We’ve been a little worried about him.”
“It hurts,” Mr. Smith said, as Oliver licked his face. “It still hurts, but this dog reminds me of my old boy; only he’s funny looking,” Mr. Smith said. He began rubbing Oliver, who turned over onto his back while Mr. Smith rubbed his stomach.
“Maybe you should come back, and bring the dog,” the nurse suggested.
“We can use a little entertainment around here, and laughing never hurt anything, “ she added.
“I’ll think about it,” I replied. And I did of course. I thought a lot about how much our pets matter to us. I looked up articles on the internet on therapy dogs, and how they are being used to help those who are recovering from an illness, or dealing with depression. There are even programs that use dogs to help veterans recover from PTSD. It’s more than that though. It’s not just the dog per se, it’s the relationship between dogs and us that count.
I thought about my own life and how our first dog had changed it for the better. I didn’t get my first dog until I was 53 years old. The reason for that is I used to think that dogs were dirty and that they would mess up my house. I didn’t want to be licked or drooled on either and I didn’t want to take one for a walk. What if it were raining? What did you do then? What if it peed on the rugs?
All that changed when my mother was dying in a nursing home. I became so depressed that a friend of mine suggested I go hug puppies to cheer me up. At first I thought it was a crazy idea, but I decided to give it a try anyway. I had nothing to lose right?
I promised my husband that I was only going to look at puppies, possibly hug one; but not to buy. All that changed when I held the tri-colored pup and she snuggled into my arms. My heart melted and she came home with us.
I cheered up too. Actually, she domesticated me. Up until that time I had pursued an active and successful career as an art therapist. I worked all the time because I loved my job, and my husband worked all the time as a radiologist. We spent a lot of our daylight hours in hospitals, and collapsed at night.
Now I had to come home in the middle of the day to let the dog out! More so, I felt it necessary to come home early from work because I was worried she might get lonely. Before long, I started to make dinner on a regular basis, which in turn pleased my husband.
Since I was around more often, I also began to take an active interest in our house. I hung curtains and bought new bedspreads. We began to start projects: painting the living room a different color, digging up the backyard for a garden. Did I mention that we walked our dog…together? In the scheme of things, our lives got better.
Maybe if some of us are lucky enough, we find a dog to love.