Published in the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Bulletin, summer edition 2011
by Leila Grandemange
What exactly is this wonderful word we call comfort?
One definition of comfort is somebody or something that brings relief from pain or anxiety. Comfort comes in many forms; sunlight, for example, is one of the greatest healing remedies found in nature. If only I could harness the warmth, comfort, and healing power of the sun, and dispense it all year round! Hmmm, maybe I can!
When I adopted my first Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, I had no idea I was purchasing a little piece of sunshine that would be available 24/7, rain or shine! This little light of mine soon became a close companion and personal “emotional support therapist!”During times of illness, sadness, or stress, my dogs bring relief in a way no human, doctor, or counselor can. Having received so much from my dogs, I want to share their comforting presence with those in need. Fortunately, my Cavaliers instinctively lead me into situations where they shine!
Shining at the beach
One summer day I came across a group of patients from a mental health institution sitting quietly at the beach. I noticed one patient staring at my Cavalier with longing eyes as my dog pulled to greet him. With the approval of the nurse, I permitted my dog to go to him and immediately the young man’s face lit up. Sounds of joy escaped from his lips as my dog instinctively snuggled in his lap. Before long, the other patients motioned for their turn, and my little sunshine was passed around so everyone could catch some rays! Although my dog had no formal “pet therapy” training other than being well socialized and happy, he proved to be a true “Comfort Spaniel.”
Shining with the elderly
Most of the elderly I meet thoroughly enjoy time spent sitting and petting my dog. Stroking a dog stimulates the mind and body. It calms nerves, relieves suffering, lifts moods, and soothes the soul. I’ve witnessed these benefits while visiting the elderly in nursing homes. Upon entering a room with my dog, something magical happens. Frowns turn to smiles, silence turns to laughter, and despair turns to hope! Their focus turns to my dog, and almost immediately they smile! I’ve seen laughter break out as my canine comedian licks the elderly person’s toes, nose, or does silly things only a dog can do. Laughter is good for the soul and a welcome relief from their pain or infirmity.
One unforgettable memory was seeing my Cavalier snuggle in the arms of an elderly lady who was bedridden and could barely move. She only had the use of one or her arms, but she grabbed hold of my dogs paw with all her heart. Although she couldn’t talk, she seemed peaceful and content as she lay by my dog. I was in awe . . .
Milan Kundra writes, “Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious day is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring- it was peace.”
Shining with children
When a dog interacts with a child, the possibilities for healing, growth, and encouragement are endless. When a child has trouble reading for example, he can practice reading to a dog! Children know a dog won’t make them feel silly for pronouncing words incorrectly or for stuttering. They sense that dogs accept them as they are.
George Elliot writes, “We long for an affection altogether ignorant of our faults. Heaven has accorded this to us in this uncritical canine attachment.” Dogs seem blind to age, beauty, race, educational background, and our past. There is no criticism or judgment in their eyes. There are children all around us that don’t feel loved. Ugly, stupid, fat, jerk, geek—these are all unfortunate labels that humans place on each other. As a young child at school, I remember hearing my share of hurtful words. Yet my dog welcomed me home each day as if I was the most special person on earth! Curled up in my bed, I would tell him all my troubles and he licked every tear. He truly was like sunshine on a cloudy day! Dogs don’t see with human eyes; they love each child unconditionally!
Assuming a person is not afraid of dogs, most anyone can benefit from their comforting presence. Some of the benefits include reduced stress, lower blood pressure, relief from depression and anxiety, feeling accepted, hopeful, and unconditionally loved. Not everyone has the good fortune to own a dog however. The words of a well-loved Sunday school song come to mind, This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…
So why not share a little sunshine?
The opportunities for our dogs to shine are endless! However, keep in mind that although Cavaliers are natural comforters, visiting with strangers can be unpredictable and scary. We need to work with them, exposing them to a variety of sights, sounds, and smells. Not every dog will be suitable for this kind of work. Proper socialization as a pup will lay a good foundation and help you evaluate your pet’s potential. If you would like more information about formal pet therapy training, there are numerous organizations that can guide you. ( See information at the end of this article)
Life lessons from our dogs
Whether visiting granny at a nursing home, helping a child struggling to read, or interacting with people we meet on our walks, our dogs can make a difference! When I feel inadequate to reach out, I am reminded that right under my feet, on my sofa, or on the end of my leash is a little piece of sunshine! Maybe I’m biased, but I think we represent one of the most loving breeds on earth. I wonder if this quote was inspired by a Cavalier—
“If the essence of my being has caused a smile to have appeared upon your face or a touch of joy within your heart, then in living—I have made my mark.” —Thomas L. Odem, Jr.
Leila is the recipient of the AKC Responsible Dog Ownership Public Service Award. She writes to inspire love, care, and compassion for dogs. About the Author.
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More information on Pet Therapy
Here is a brief summary of Pet Therapy in case you would like to learn more and possibly get involved:
Simple definition of Therapy Pets: The use of your pets to induce relaxation. For example, a certified therapy dog will work with a patient to provide emotional comfort and encourage a positive state of mind. Through affection, play and presence, the pet may also ease discomfort and pain. Pets can also be used for living assistance.
The therapeutic use of pets as companions has gained increasing attention in recent years. Unlike people, with whom our interactions are often complex and unpredictable, animals provide a constant source of comfort and focus for attention. Animals bring out our nurturing instinct, they make us feel safe and unconditionally accepted, and we can just be ourselves around our pets. They provide a source of hope and relief for a wide variety of patients- children in pediatrics, cancer patients, the elderly, the mentally ill and many others.
What is a Therapy Dog?
“Therapy Dogs” “Therapy Pets” “Visiting pets” and “Pet Therapy” are a few of the names given to describe programs in which animals help people just by visiting with them. Today there are several more specific terms in use.
For example, the preferred use for the term Animal Assisted Therapy is for formal treatment programs, usually involving one particular animal and handler assigned to one particular client ( patient). The handler and the health care provider have specific goals to be accomplished, and plan how to accomplish those goals. The preferred use for more informal programs is Animal Assisted Activities.
The most commonly used term for a dog visiting in residential care facilities is “therapy dog,” but some prefer to say “visiting dog” when the visit is general, with no specific plan for a specific individual.
Links to help you get started
1. Pet Partners
2. Therapy Dogs International ( TDI)
3. Love On A leash ( LOVE)
Earning the AKC Canine Good Citizen ( CGC) award is a great place to begin and find out if your pet has the potential to go further.