National Capital Therapy Dogs Inc. is a non-profit, completely volunteer organization that specializes in providing animal therapy to patients in locations such as health facilities, schools, shelters and special needs clinics. Recognized as one of the top animal-therapy agencies in the country, NCTD visits over 130 different institutions along the east coast, ranging from Maryland to Southern Virginia. The formula for success is fairly straightforward: well-trained, compassionate canines visit individuals in need of the unconditional love and attention from an interaction with man’s best friend. The connection between people and puppies can yield amazing experiences, occasionally resulting in situations as significant as medical or psychological breakthroughs. Sandra Lumpkin, an owner of several pet therapy dogs, dedicates hours and hours to sharing the gift of gentle attention with others. She kindly shared several stories from her inspirational encounters with Voices for Biodiversity.
Meet Tucket, a 105-pound block-headed, robust black Labrador retriever whose tail was perpetually wagging. One evening, while visiting a hospice center, Tucket made the impression of a lifetime. Sandra stepped into a solemn room, where a young man sat in shock after the death of his wife. She had left behind a small son, but the nurses had informed Sandra that the man was experiencing so much grief they feared he was not making adequate plans for the wellbeing of his child. Sandra remembers, “I stepped into his room with poodle in hand, and he did not seem very interested. I said, ‘There is a Labrador in the hall, Tucket.’ He patted his bed, smiled, and said, ‘Come here Tuck, come here boy.’ He pet Tucket for a bit, then bent over and wrapped his arms around Tucket’s upper body and buried his face in his neck. I was standing across the room and could see their profiles. Tucket leaned into the man, rested his chin on his shoulder, the tail stopped wagging, and he stood perfectly still. The man began to cry softly and then he had wracking sobs. Tears rolled down my husband’s cheeks. Tucket stood calmly and took the man’s grief for as long as needed. The staff later told us that Tucket’s visit was the one and only time that this gentleman had been able to openly mourn.”
Gunner, a nine-year-old, seven-pound toy poodle, preferred interactions in quiet locations. He worked well in the Intensive Care Unit, where patients were slightly more isolated. Gunner was asked by a nurse to make a visit to “Mr. Bill,” a 93-year-old man who was blind and had difficulty hearing, but whose face immediately brightened when informed that a small dog had come to spend time with him. As Gunner curled up on Mr. Bill’s lap, Sandra began speaking with him. “I could tell by his accent that he had not been born here, so I asked how many languages he spoke.” The man replied that he knew five. Soon, he began to share with Sandra that he was both an electrical and mechanical engineer.
“He had worked for NASA during the first lunar landing. He had eighteen patents. He had written two textbooks for MIT. He had cared for his wife, who had dementia, for many years.” Sandra was amazed, as was the young nurse sitting across the room. “She had just been calling him ‘Mr. Bill.’ Gunner was the bridge to humanizing this patient for his nurse.”
Interactions with pets can illicit calming effects, alleviate depression, improve relationship difficulties and lower blood pressure. Ghillie, a three-year-old standard poodle was even able to inspire one little girl to open her eyes. “We walked past a room and I saw it was filled with visitors. The patient appeared to be sleeping so I opted not to go in. As we walked past, one of the visitors came out and said, ‘Will you please come in? My sister had a black poodle and she might wake up to see yours.’
Sandra recalls, “The patient was lying on her side facing us while Ghillie stood eye level with her. She immediately opened her eyes and said, ‘Shadow.’ She wrapped her arms around him and all her family members stood around the bed and began to take photos of them. The photos showed them looking at one another nose to nose. I later learned that those photos were emailed all over the country so her loved ones could see her smile.”
Humans have interacted with domesticated animals for hundreds of years. In fact, some are so integral to our survival that we may have evolved with an inherent adoration for certain species. These stories make it clear that humankind has the capacity to appreciate other species; the key is to expand this relationship between the human animal and the other life forms.
Photos courtesy of Sandra Lumpkin