Yesterday was a very important day of therapy work for me and my two dogs. I learned something that I always knew in the back of my mind, but saw so clearly through the behavior of both Benny and Petey.
There is often the debate of whether the great therapy animals are born or created. Yes we can teach animals, particularly dogs, to be gentle and calm and well mannered. But I often tell people we cannot teach them to love.
Yesterday I realized that the greatest criteria for a therapy animal is not only to give love but to truly receive love.
Benny was the dog no one wanted. The dog who could jump as high as the sky. The dog who could bark relentlessly. The dog who woke from a deep sleep and tried to escape the house, escape his demons. The dog who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, make eye contact.
Petey was the dog neglected and starving for care. The dog who had to struggle through losing his teeth and learning to eat and live in a new way at eleven years old. The dog who probably never had a true connection with people.
Both dogs loved big. Both dogs wanted to give love and affection. Both dogs became stellar therapy dogs.
But yesterday I saw what their truest contribution is in the world of animal-assisted therapy.
Both dogs, in their own way, showed me the importance of receiving love.
So many of the people we work with are in a world of their own. Whether isolated by depression or dementia or autism or physical challenges, they have come to feel unproductive, perhaps even worthless, useless and that they don’t matter. One person even told me she felt invisible.
It is in the human DNA to want to give, contribute, matter. And they no longer feel they have anything to give.
So I saw yesterday that the greatest gift my dogs can give someone else it to be the recipient of their love.
When Julian does the one thing most difficult for him – to truly look at Benny, right in the eyes, and Benny looks right back at him, Benny is receiving Julian’s love, his greatest gift.
When I brought Petey to the geriatric psychiatric unit we visit, he did the one thing needed most. When the client whose lap he was lying on looked up from her sadness, he looked back. He raised his little head and their eyes met. One moment of clarity for the woman, one moment of love for the tiny dog. Their breathing was in sync and they rested together for half an hour. At one point the woman stroked his little body and he sighed and gave her a tiny little lick. I thanked her for loving my dog and she looked at me for the first time. And smiled. Being able to give to my dog was so important for her. And Petey being able to receive her love in such a gentle way was what she needed most at that moment, to feel she mattered and had something tangible to give.
So is it enough for our therapy animals to give love or is it essential they truly know how to receive love?