Pet Therapy Dogs Are Our Heroes

I should put out a ’tissue alert’ for this story before I begin.

Years ago when I started doing pet therapy work, I never realized that I would meet some of my best friends this way. Not just the pets – the people who work with them. These are some of the most selfless people I have ever met. They give their time, their gas and generously share their beloved dogs.

Think about growing up and laying in bed sick. Or coming home to sit on the couch all upset about an event that didn’t go well for you. Or just relaxing in your chair while watching TV. Who was always right there beside you? There to comfort you and make you feel better? Your dog. Even just petting your dog has been proven to lower your blood pressure. Your dog may have been your best friend and was always there for you.

Now it’s years later and you have been given some of the worst news a person can receive. You are sick and this time it’s terminal. Friends and family come by to visit you and reminisce about the good times you’ve spent together. But there are some friends who can’t come by to see you during your last days. Those are the loyal friends that were always by your side when you were growing up – pets. Some therapy dogs go to hospice centers or into private homes to share a few minutes of the last days with people who have been diagnosed with terminal illnesses. While more hospitals and hospice centers are allowing patients’ pets to visit them, this isn’t always possible. Therapy dogs can help provide that extra comfort in those cases.

Bo, my Norwegian Elk Hound, and I had been visiting one of our favorite facilities and recognized many of the same sweet ladies each time. One lady was very soft spoken, but always cheerful. One evening we were going down the halls of the facility and a couple of her family members were in her room. They quietly told us that she was not doing well and they expected her to pass away that night. I told them how we had enjoyed visiting with her each month. They thanked us for visiting her all those months and told us about how she had loved one of the family dogs so much that they had found her a stuffed version of the dog to have with her. They took us over to her bed and showed us that she was still holding onto that stuffed dog. It was a very powerful sight and testament to how much people love their pets. Even in the hardest moments of their life, they receive comfort from them – even if only in memory.

I never realized that I would be put in the situation of watching someone so close to our family go through this most difficult part of life, too. But that’s what happened with my best human friend, Donna.

I met Donna about 13 years ago when we both started pet therapy work. Donna has had a few therapy dogs over the years, but her current dog is Lily, a Bichon Frise that was rescued from a puppy mill. Over the years our families became close friends. We would go out to dinner together, play games and spend some holidays together enjoying each others’ great sense of humor. Her husband, Don, was a man with that kind of personality. He was the kind you wanted to spend hours with listening to stories or joking with.

Don was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer early last summer.

He was told they gave him only 2 months to live as it was very fast moving and had already spread. His family came from across the country to spend some quality time with him. Friends and neighbors stopped by, called and emailed to get a few more minutes of his life to cherish. Lily the Bichon spent many hours laying next to her “daddy” in his chair.

Don decided to spend his last hours at home. My family was very privileged to be asked to spend those last hours of Don’s life with the family at the house. The family shared stories throughout the night laughing about the memories of growing up with Don and Donna as their parents. Don passed quietly and comfortably early the next morning with Lily laying on the bed beside him. She served her daddy all the way to the end.

In the months since Don’s passing, Lily and her sister Ammo have done their work helping Donna adjust to life without Don. Donna is doing alright with the support of her family, friends and therapy dogs. We continue to get together to make new memories and share the old ones. But we don’t just sit around and cry about losing our good friend. That’s not the way he wanted it. We continue to laugh and remember his sense of humor. That’s also the way we should remember our dogs from years gone by, too. They didn’t like seeing us upset and did all they could to cheer us up.

So many families are forced to go through this, the most difficult situation most will ever have to face. Pet therapy teams are all volunteers and do their work, many visiting terminally ill patients to give them the comfort Lily gave to Don, out of the goodness of their hearts. But the dogs are the real heroes. They sense when you need some comfort and enjoy the petting as their reward. They will serve all the way to our last breath if possible and we would never give up one second of the time we get to spend with each and every one of them.

June 8 marked one year since Don passed away. It was also very appropriately ‘Best Friends Day.’ But we don’t need a special day on the calendar to remember our past best friends – whether human or animal. So put away those tissues and remember the fun times, the good times, the happy memories of your best friend. We also don’t have to wait for one day a year to hug and appreciate our best friends…or to appreciate those who do pet therapy to help bring comfort, joy and canine friendship to those who need it most.

-Photo Credit: From flickr by Marvin Kuo

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