Man’s Best Healing Friend
“Is this an airport or a kennel?” I joked with the captain of the airline as we stood in line at the Last Starbucks Before Departure.
“Certainly seems that way these days,” he said, laughing. A woman holding a Chihuahua in a Therapy Dog vest eyed us suspiciously. A quick glance around the terminal revealed at least several dogs on leashes, all wearing the telltale blue vests of therapy animals.
“There’s a big difference between a service animal and a therapy animal. In the case of therapy animals, they are trained specifically to provide comfort and affection to people. Service animals are strained to perform specific tasks,” he said. “In this day and age, it seems a whole lot of people could use that extra comfort.” He laughed.
“So it’s not just about people trying to sneak their pets onto airplanes?” I asked.
“Not at all,” he said. “Travelling is stressful. Just look at these lines!” Others around us laughed, too.
Some may feel people have used the therapy dogs as a loophole and are simply using it to transport their animals where they’ve previously not been allowed or able to, but whenever I see those vests, I remember Isaac, where he was at when I met him and where he is at today.
Isaac suffered a tremendous amount of debilitating anxiety attacks for years. He’d have panic attacks so severe he’d stay home from his high school. He just could not get out of bed. The world seemed to be “. . . too much . . .” for him. Even his regimen of psychiatric pills and therapies sometimes did not do enough to get him totally through. He’d have good periods, but could slip into one of his funks without warning, and he’d be back at square one. He fought with his parents constantly. They felt they’d run out of options to try and help their son.
Even he knew he had to do something, and Isaac reached out to me. “I swear, sometimes I feel like I’m not in control of my mind or my thoughts. It’s very frustrating. I know you’ve gotten through this. How did you do it?” We grew up neighbors, and I would sometimes babysit him when he was a child.
I had gone through periods of anxiety. My own life had seen me navigate periods similar to Isaac, and we became close talking about his challenges. “The one thing that always helps is when I help others,” I said.
He sighed heavily, audible from the other end of the phone. “Look: I’m in no position to help anyone else right now. I’m just in high school. I can’t talk to anyone. Sometimes I can’t even put into words what I’m feeling, you know? The anger and all that.”
“I’m not talking about people,” I said. “I think I have an idea for you. If you’re open.”
“What is it?”
“I don’t want to tell you,” I said. “It’ll be better if I show you.”
“I don’t know . . .”
“I’ll make it easy on you. I can pick you up after school. It won’t take more than an hour.”
“You brought me to your work?” Isaac asked.
“I have,” I said. “There’s something I want you to see.”
We made our way past the front of the house that doubled as the office and home to the Sunny Day Animal Rescue. In the backyard, there was a large garage that had been converted into an office, complete with several kennels.
We went inside. “I’m curious,” Isaac said. “Why did you bring me to Sunny Day?”
“Here’s what’s going on. There’s been a new batch of rescues,” I said. “We just saved them from downtown. They were just thrown into a dumpster. Some are in really bad shape.”
I led him toward the back, where in a small fenced-in area, the six tiny terriers had their new home. “We think they’re only a month or so old,” I said. “It’s hard to say for sure. One of them is almost blind. One has a leg that’s not really working. Almost all of them need to be fed by hand. They’re not sure where to go to the bathroom, so they’re going all over the place.” I motioned to a couch nearby their kennel. Isaac stared at the litter. Some ran around, while others shied away. “Sit down for a minute, please.”
“Okay, sure,” Isaac said. He still couldn’t keep his attention from the animals. I’d rarely seen him so alert and focused. He grinned. “They are so tiny. Who could just throw them away? That’s absolutely insane.”
“It certainly is nuts,” I said. “I’m just grateful we found them.” My seat was situated right next to the fencing. I reached down and grabbed one I’d nicknamed Bruce. I held him in my arms, pet him gently, and sat on the couch next to Isaac. He couldn’t keep his eyes off the puppy.
“Can I hold him?” he asked.
“Of course,” I said, handing over the pooch. “I’ve nicknamed him Bruce.”
“Perfect! He looks like a Bruce, doesn’t he?” Isaac laughed when Bruce climbed him, heading toward his face. I realized I’d never heard Isaac laugh, and I’d never even seen him crack the smallest smile.
“There’s a job here at Sunny Day, if you’re up for it,” I said. “We need someone to come in every afternoon and help take care of them. It’s going to be . . .”
“What?” Isaac asked. “Me?”
“Yeah. They need to be hand fed and their area cleaned up. Maybe start training them on where to go to the bathroom. Nothing major. But it’s important,” I said.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “Can I even handle something like this?”
“Sure you can. You won’t be alone. I train you the first week,” I said. “To be honest? I think it’d be good for you. It’ll make sure you have a goal every day. Working at Sunny Day has helped me get out of myself and keep my mind busy. It’s been very therapeutic.”
“Every? Day? Holy Mackerel.”
“Seven days a week, mostly,” I said. “And you’d need to be here by seven on the weekends.”
He looked away. “Wow. That’s brutal.”
“The good news is that it won’t last forever,” I said. “A few weeks. A month . . . month and a half, maybe. Just until they can eat on their own and learn where and how to go to the bathroom. So you’d have a pretty good end in sight.”
“I don’t have a car,” he said, perplexed.
“You have a bike,” I said. “It’s less than a mile from your house and school.”
He thought for a moment. “Huh. True. I could walk if I had to.”
“You certainly could,” I said. “I often do.”
He thought for a moment. “How much does it pay?”
“Not a lot, but it’d be worth it,” I said. “Plus there is the very real side benefit of the therapeutic benefits you’re going to get, ready or not! And besides? I think both sides could use the attention.”
Isaac looked down at Bruce. Bruce blinked several times and wagged his back and tail. I imagined if he could have talked, he would have said, “Come on, buddy! Let’s do it!”
Bruce lunged forward and licked Isaac’s chin, making him laugh. Isaac said, “Fine! Okay,” he said. “I’ll do it.”
At first, caring for the litter wasn’t easy for Isaac. It took him a good week to get used to them and the routine. At times, he seemed frustrated and nearly shut down. I helped him get through it.
Isaac had to put some wet food on a small plastic spoon and hand feed a couple of the dogs. Even doing so was a challenge, with some barely opening their mouths. He had to make sure they were eating so they wouldn’t choke if he put too much in their mouths. “I feel like a new father with a baby,” he said.
“You pretty much are,” I said. “You’re their parent when you do this.”
“Who would do this if we didn’t find them?” he asked.
“To be honest? No one. Many of them would probably starve to death,” I said. “Hate to even say that.”
“Sheesh,” he said. “That’s awful.”
“That’s why getting up early isn’t a big deal to me,” I said. “I know there are souls here that depend on me.”
“It’s so cool,” Isaac said. “I never knew.” He hesitated before adding: “I haven’t felt that anger . . . that urge . . . as much as I used to. I have to keep it in check for them.”
“Wow,” I said. “Hope it sticks.”
The puppies got used to Isaac. We had others that came in the afternoon and at night, but they seemed to love him most. All their tails wagged when he arrived. On the third day, I changed things up. “Your last ten minutes is free time,” I told him. “That’s when you get to play with them and just be present with them.”
Isaac soon introduced a small green ball. At first, only Bruce would go after it. Within a few days, two more puppies chased the ball, too, until, after a week, five of them were running around their pen. “Their learning to be dogs,” he said. “It’s awesome to watch. Most of them weren’t even coming off their beds a few days ago.”
“That’s how it begins,” I said. “They learn quickly.”
That first Friday, when I met him at the rescue to give him his first check, I asked, “So what do you think now?”
“It’s been great,” he said. “Very therapeutic, which I wasn’t expecting. I haven’t fought with my folks since. And school has been a little easier.”
“Dogs can do that,” I said. “Animals can do that.”
He laughed, “They’re like man’s best healing friends.”
“True!” I said.
“I was thinking about it last night,” he said. “The best part of this so far is realizing that something needs me. They are looking to me. They are dependent on me. And I’m doing it just fine, which is cool. And it feels great to have a job where I’m making a real difference for a life. Most of my jobs have been pretty shallow.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Selling phones to people who are blowing gaskets about losing their emails, for example. Even though you could retrieve them online, these guys would be so angry. Over a phone,” he said. “But when I look down at the pups? They’re so appreciative. They’re so happy to see me. It’s such a great feeling, I can’t tell you.”
“I know,” I said.
“It’s weird to think someone like me is seen that way to them,” he said. “I feel very useful. Like I’m part of a plan instead of just coasting along. Maybe that’s why I was angry. I didn’t feel like I was worth anything.”
“Wow,” I said. “That’s a lot to realize in just a week.”
He nodded. “Spending time with them gave me the space inside my head. You were right. It got me out. The walk takes about fifteen minutes. I feel like a big part of me is already doing better.”
“That’s great,” I said. “And how are the pups doing?”
“They’re still working on eating by themselves. I don’t have to sit with them as long. Now they’re almost used to me,” he said, laughing. “Almost.”
“Next week we’ll get them started with bowls,” I said. “It’s only going to get better. Oh? And one more thing . . .” I reached into the desk drawer, took out a key, and handed it to him. “I think you’re ready to take the reigns yourself next week.”
The month flew by. I didn’t hear from Isaac as much. But I saw him more. He often stayed past his scheduled time. One of our other staff members got sick during Isaac’s third week, and he volunteered to take care of the evening shift. Also by Isaac’s third week, he’d introduced them to the patch of grass in the back. The pups were able to run free. Isaac threw toys and they picked up on all the finer benefits of being dogs quickly. “I can’t just leave them because the clock says so,” he said. “They want me to bring them back inside.”
I didn’t want to pry, but it seemed Isaac was getting a lot from his new job. It may have seemed small to the outside world, but to our world, the pup’s world, and to Isaac’s, it seemed huge. His parents hadn’t called me about any fights since he’d started. He hadn’t missed a day of school. Isaac’s spirits lifted considerably. The therapeutic effects of dogs were working their magic on him, as they had mine, and so many countless others.
Soon the pups had been nursed and taught enough as to become adoptable. On the morning of Isaac’s sixth Friday, he came into the office with the pups and put them in their area. As I was writing his check, he asked, “So I was wondering . . .”
I had a feeling I knew where he was headed. It was difficult, but I tried to refrain from smiling.
“Is there any way I might adopt one of the pups?” he asked.
I couldn’t stop my smile from coming out. “Of course,” I said. “I think that’d be amazing.”
He lit up from inside. “Really? Because I think Bruce and I have bonded. He’s so awesome. And my parents said it would be fine. It’s made such a difference in my therapy. My mother has said she’s seen a big difference.”
“Yes. A hundred percent. Absolutely,” I said and handed him his check. He folded it in two and slipped it inside his pocket. “You’re familiar with the paperwork. I’ll waive the fees so long as you promise to stay on here at Sunny Day Animal Rescue for at least another round.”
“Another round?” he asked. His eyes appeared to have grown double in that moment.
“Yup. We’ve got another litter coming this afternoon. We’ll need to move these guys to the front, public kennels,” I said. “The whole thing starts again tomorrow.”
“Wow,” he said. “Cool. I think I had a bad first impression of what a therapy dog is. I imagined some Hollywood gossip person with an accessory dog gaming the system to bring her dog in her purse to some fancy restaurant.”
“Right. True,” I said. “That happens more often than I’d like, doesn’t it?”
“But!” he said. “For someone like me . . . with my anxiety and stuff . . . Bruce and the pups have been amazing. It’s an amazing type of therapy. It’s really healing being around them. It’s brought out a side of me I think got lost.”
“That’s pretty much what happened to me when I first came to Sunny Day Animal Rescue, Isaac. This is so wild. To be honest? I couldn’t have wished for a better outcome,” I said. “What does your therapist think, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“She thinks it’s great,” he said. “I’m going to still keep my sessions with her, of course. As great medicine as the pups are, I’m still going to stay on my medicines, too.”
“Good idea,” I said. “It all works together, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah. And I was thinking of registering Bruce, too,” Isaac said. “Get him his official Therapy Dog vest and certificate.”
“Just in case you want to hit that fancy restaurant with him, right?” I asked.
He laughed and said, “Exactly!”
Isaac’s been with us three years now. He’s going to be a senior at High School. “I still get moments where I feel that old anxiety coming on,” he said. “But then I just look at Bruce and remember that first day with him. Most of my bad feelings go away once I think everything through. Bruce needs me. I need him. Having him need me makes all the difference.”
“It does, doesn’t it?” I said.
“Yeah. Like I always say: man’s best healing friend.” Isaac laughed.
Man’s best healing friend, indeed.
“I’ve got a surprise for you,” Isaac said. “Something I wanted to share.” He’d stayed around after one of his shifts in order to catch me.
I was expecting him to give me chocolates or a bottle of wine, or something. What he gave me was even better.
“I’m bringing Bruce up to Saint Joseph’s Children’s Hospital this afternoon,” he said. You could not have wiped the smile from Isaac’s face, he was so proud.
“Wow!” I said. “Are you kidding me?”
“You know how you’re always telling me it’s important to reach out and help other people?” he asked. “You told me it helps you so much . . . that it’s therapy for you, too.”
“True,” I said.
“As soon as I got Bruce home, my Dad remarked at how calm he was, and that he would be great at helping people in hospitals,” he said. “I checked into it and went through the program at Saint Joe’s where they train the dogs, and then make sure they’ll be good for patients,” he said.
I said, “I’m honestly blown away. I am so excited you did that. That’s amazing.”
Isaac looked around the office. “It seems like so much has happened here for me in such a short amount of time,” he said.
“Life can be like that,” I said.
“Thank you so much, by the way,” he said. “You gave me such a huge opportunity here. It’s helped me more than I can say. If there’s ever anything I can do to say thanks, holler.”
“It’s my pleasure seeing that happen,” I said. “Can I ask if you’ve had anxiety? Anger?”
He nodded. “A little, here and there, still. I think it’s something I’ll always have to handle. How about you? Do you still get anxiety?”
“Sure,” I said. “But like you said, it’s something you learn to manage, and its intensity goes way down. You learn what’s normal.”
He looked over to the new litter behind the fence. “They’re doing great,” he said. “The new morning person has taken to them pretty well.”
“She has,” I said. “Before you go, I wanted to ask you something.”
“Sure,” he said.
“You just asked me if there’s anything you could ever do for me to pay me back?” I asked.
Isaac looked a little scared. “Sure,” he said.
“Well . . . mind if I tag along with you up to the hospital today?” I asked. “I can drive. And I’d love to see the first therapy dog that started at Sunny Day Rescue in action.”
He laughed. “Wow. Sure! Of course.”
I pointed at the door. “Well, then, let’s get out of here and bring those kids some therapy!”
We did just that.
And still do.
Article contributed by John Palisano