Having a ruff day? As canines, especially therapy dogs, become more included into the hospital settings, and as we learn more about this special animal’s unique qualities I would like to highlight some key factors.
As we include therapy dogs in our interactions, it is our responsibility that each interaction is mutually beneficial, when therapy dogs have interactions, we want them to enjoy it as well, not merely tolerate. Well, how do we do this? With communication! It is essential we learn dog body language for any dog, not just a therapy dog.
Meet Charlie, the therapy dog
Charlie, a brown, wired hair Fox Terrier, entered into the hospital at a mere eight weeks old, in training to be a therapy dog. I’m pretty sure he was totally unaware of the heads that he would turn, the smiles he would create and the lasting feeling of love and belonging that he would instill, just by being him.
Charlie was one of our orthopedic surgeons, Dr. Watter’s dog. He also was on of the hospital’s beloved therapy dogs. Obviously, Charlie could not go into the OR, so the days that Dr. Watters would bring Charlie, he would hang out with me and through our time of getting to know each other I got to see Charlie’s perspective, or at least his body language as he reacted to things around him.
On our daily rounds through the hospital, Charlie the therapy dog had his favorite places, and believe me, the people that he would run into and see always looked forward to the time when Charlie would arrive at their desk, paws up or on their unit, tail wagging. One thing that completely stood out to me about Charlie is that he would greet every person, and it didn’t matter if they were homeless, the CEO or a Starbucks employee, however, I think he secretly liked the Starbucks employees better because of the pup cup, of course.
I still remember the way he would slowly start licking the top of the whip cream, and how slowly his nose and mouth would take on the “whip cream” beard.. after a drink of water, and a napkin, wiping his beard, we were off to visit patients, staff, and visitors. He would show everyone the unconditional love, welcoming, and frankly the belonging for just being there in that moment, just being Charlie, the therapy dog. He took moments to study people and became such a bridge to talking and meeting people. The therapy that Charlie created was so easy for him it seems.
When it was time to bring Charlie, the therapy dog, back to see Dr. Watters, you could see the bond that they had created, that small stub of a tail that Charlie had would wag so quickly and his excitement in his face, the ears perking up and how his paws would pick up the pace, hearing the nails touching the floor in a rapid rhythm, trying to get as close to Dr. Watters as quickly as he could.
Many times I would see Dr. Watters sit on the floor with Charlie. There are rough days for an orthopedic surgeon, especially when there’s been several traumas in one day. In those moments of quietness and comfort, not to mention the silliness and closeness….what he provided to Dr. Watters on a daily basis can’t be replaced, it just can’t. It was like Charlie knew what to say, I imagine it was something like this, “damn dude, you’ve had a day, but I got you, I’m here!”
When the time came for Dr. Watters to leave, Charlie would always do one thing. He would put his paws on Dr. Watters shoulders and it almost seemed like he was giving him a hug. You could see the smile grow on Dr. Watters’s face and Charlie would jump down, give Dr. Watters one last glance over his shoulder, tail still wagging and strut down the hall like he owned the place. Because let’s be real, in that point in time he did own the place, and frankly he owned everyone’s heart around him too. The many encounters that Charlie, the therapy dog had on a daily basis and the mind shifts he created might never be known.
Charlie, the therapy dog and Dr. Watters have moved on to another hospital but I always remember what he taught me. Everyday there is time to play and you can make a difference by just being you! Therapy Dogs make a difference, just by being themselves.