How Dogs Help Us Heal and Give Us Hope
September 17, 2012
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By Dr. Becker
Not too long ago I had the pleasure of doing an interview via Skype with Rachel McPherson, author of the absolutely wonderful book, Every Dog Has a Gift: True Stories of Dogs Who Bring Hope and Healing into Our Lives.
Those of you who’ve read the book know how heartwarming and thought-provoking it is. It’s full of amazing stories of how animals help to heal people’s lives.
But first I asked Rachel to tell us about the Good Dog Foundation, a fabulous organization she started and the inspiration for Every Dog Has a Gift.
The Good Dog Foundation
Rachel explained that she used to be an independent filmmaker and was planning a documentary on therapy dogs. During the course of her research, she learned it was against the law in the state of New York for therapy dogs to go into major medical facilities. She became very motivated to get that law changed.
And she also fell in love with the world of therapy dog work and decided to create her own outstanding training program. Rachel and her team got the state law banning therapy dogs from New York hospitals changed, and created a pilot program at St. Vincent’s Hospital.
The Good Dog Foundation grew into the largest therapy dog organization on the East Coast, with 1,200 trained therapy dogs. The dogs visit almost 300 facilities in support of children with autism, children with learning disabilities, abused kids, hospital and hospice patients, and veterans.
The foundation also does disaster response. Their dogs were at Ground Zero after 9/11 and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.
Every Dog Has a Gift Evolved from the Good Dog Foundation
Animals are able to unlock a part of the human soul that other humans can’t get into. I asked Rachel to talk about her experiences seeing the power animals have to help people heal.
She explained that her organization sees this power every day, and she has seen it personally when she goes on therapy dog visits. Dogs have the ability to break through to a wonderful place in the human heart and soul. Animals are acutely aware of what is going on around them through their senses. Rachel believes the unconditional love of dogs comes through, in part because they don’t talk.
Rachel’s book, Every Dog Has a Gift, came out of her work with the Good Dog Foundation. She includes lots of stories people have sent her in the book, and she continues to collect stories for her next book.
Another thing I love about the book is its extensive list of resources. Rachel explained she built the list through networking, from people around the world that have contacted the foundation, and through her own reading and research into the work of a wide variety of people who are passionate about animals.
Service vs. Therapy Dogs – What’s the Difference?
Another thing I love about Every Dog Has a Gift is Rachel points out that not every dog has to go through extensive training to be a therapy dog. And there’s no particular breed or type of dog that can be involved in therapy work. In fact, every family with a dog is actually receiving therapy from their pet in their own home. That’s such an important observation.
I asked Rachel to talk about the difference between a service dog and a therapy dog, because a lot of people use those words interchangeably, but there are actually differences between the two types of work.
She explained that service dogs are trained by special organizations from the time they are puppies. Once fully trained, service dogs are placed in the home of someone with a disability, or perhaps with an autistic child, to live with and be of service to that person for the rest of their lives.
A therapy dog, on the other hand, forms one half of a visiting team with a human partner. The team goes through extensive Good Dog therapy training, and once training is complete, they do therapy visits in settings like hospitals, schools for children with autism, and other facilities.
Every Dog Has a Gift includes resources for people who are interested in doing dog therapy work but may not have a formal organization close by. In her book, Rachel also provides tips on how people can work with their dogs within the family unit. There’s an entire section devoted to how well children and dogs work together and how the work can actually improve family dynamics. The book is a really great resource for people who simply want to improve their interactions with their dogs, and also for those who want to learn about therapy dog work.
Therapy Dogs and 9/11
I asked Rachel to talk a little about her involvement with the 9/11 aftermath back in 2001. She explained that as soon as she realized what was happening that day, she knew her foundation’s dogs should be there to assist survivors, families of victims, and workers.
Rachel worked with the Family Assistance Center created by Dr. Grace Telesco, as well as Mayor Giuliani. She and her team were honored to be a part of the work done at Ground Zero.
Immediately after the disaster, the dogs went into the Family Assistance Center at Pier 94 and provided support and comfort to everyone who came through. There was a lot of grief and shock, and Rachel remembers the therapy dogs were just amazing during that time.
Dr. Telesco asked Rachel and her dog, Fidel, to participate in a float trip to take families of victims to the site of 9/11 for their first visit since the towers came down. Rachel said it was just amazing to watch Fidel interact with victims’ families on that trip. He provided unconditional love and comfort to so many people.
Then last year, all the mental health practitioners who had worked at Ground Zero gathered again for the ten-year anniversary of 9/11. Some of the family members also came, and were able to see Fidel again. Fidel was 15 by that time and the families who had met him in 2001 were thrilled to see him again 10 years later.
The story of Fidel and 9/11 touched me, and so did another story of a young veterinarian and her dog Chet. I can relate to that story, because I too had a rescue dog who was with me all through vet school. She was with me as I traveled the country doing internships as well. As her life came to its gradual end, it was an amazing learning process for me. The vet who wrote about her dog Chet also learned so much from him, and continues to learn, just like I do. Sometimes even after a dog passes away, the learning continues.
One last thing I asked Rachel to talk about from her book was how even people who aren’t able to have a dog – say they live in a small apartment or their landlord doesn’t allow pets – can still get involved and work with dogs.
Rachel pointed out that there are special needs dogs, and of course dogs at shelters all over the country who have been abused or abandoned and in need of attention from caring volunteers. Every time there’s a natural disaster like Katrina, countless pets must be rescued and cared for. So volunteering in your community or at a local shelter is a good way to get involved and work with animals in desperate need.
I want to thank Rachel McPherson for her wonderful book, the inspiring work she does through Good Dog, and for taking time to chat with me.
Every Dog Has a Gift: True Stories of Dogs Who Bring Hope and Healing into Our Lives can be found on Amazon.com in hard cover, paperback and also for the Kindle.
If you’d like to learn more about Rachel’s fabulous therapy dog organization, visit the Good Dog Foundation.