There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face ~ Bernard Williams (1929-2003), English moral philosopher.
When I booked my flight to Portland for a business trip I expected to be charmed by the city. I also anticipated succeeding in my purpose for the trip. I went to Portland to document the various therapies used at Shepherds’ Pathway with mental health clients, including dog therapy. I was not disappointed in Portland, and the interviews went off without a hitch.
What I hadn’t counted on when booking my flight to Portland was leaving there a week later bowled over by puppy love. Not the simple, giddy infatuation typically associated with adolescence, but that gushing kind of adoration that many of us feel for innocent little happy-go-lucky puppies. In my case it was one pup in particular: Sparkles.
I met bright-eyed, vivacious Sparkles at his home, where he lives with his two caretakers: Sisters Carmel Irving and Cathie Boerboom. I stayed with Srs. Carmel and Cathie while in Portland. The two Sisters co-founded Shepherds’ Pathway, along with Sr. Chris Hock and Sue Newell. Shepherds’ Pathway is a mental health ministry for all Portlanders regardless of ability to pay. It’s the perfect setting for a young canine that’s destined to be a therapy dog.
Sparkles cast his spell on me the moment we met. I was captivated by his adorable face and crackerjack personality. It was play at first sight and he soon won me over as his new best littermate. I couldn’t resist his charm. I was as drawn to the lively three pound Yorkshire Terrier (yorkie) as surely as a moth is drawn to a flame. I found myself flapping my arms and clapping my hands and making my voice softer and higher-pitched. I sprawled on the floor so he could climb on me. I chased him around the room. I squealed in delight while snatching him up to cuddle and hold. The “aw factor” had definitely taken hold. The spell didn’t lift until I was thousands of feet above Portland, St. Louis-bound, returning home.
Who can blame me for losing myself to a puppy? It’s human nature. Research says so.
Yale University released research findings in January claiming that the cute things puppies do actually inspire a physical response in us. It seems the human brain is hard-wired to respond to cues that play upon our instincts to nurture. When we see these cues in puppies (and kittens and babies) we can’t help but respond with a rush of a feel-good hormone called oxytocin. This hormone decreases anxiety and inspires an urge toward gentleness and care.
Dubbed “cute aggression,” the release of oxytocin means that people actually respond to cuteness in a physical way. We light up. We smile. We coo and babble, rarely getting past the word “aw.”
It’s not just pups, by the way. Adult dogs have a similar effect on us. Research from the University of Missouri-Columbia suggested 10 years ago that the hormonal changes that occur when humans and dogs interact could help people cope with depression and certain stress-related disorders.
The range of problems that animal-assisted therapy addresses is broad and includes cognitive functioning, social interaction and even extreme conditions such as autism. Therapy animals have been extremely powerful when working with clients who have survived trauma, abuse or family violence. Petting, stroking or hugging another species gives clients an opportunity to develop a safe attachment, particularly for those who have had their trust in humans shattered. In fact, animals have proven so effective in working with people facing psychological and physical problems that animal assisted therapy is now accepted by mainstream psychological, educational and medical researchers and practitioners.
Therapy dog certification
When Sparkles is old enough he will be trained to become a therapy dog, the first formal Good Shepherd therapy dog in the Province of Mid-North America. Before he tackles this level of training, he has to get some basic skills under his harness. Puppy school is his first stepping stone.
Sparkles is currently enrolled in puppy kindergarten. After he learns the basic commands of sit, stay, down and heal, he will attend advanced puppy school to master those commands and more. Sparkles will begin official training as a therapy dog when he is one year old. He’s currently a frisky four month-old pup.
Because socialization is a critical part of Sparkles’ early puppy training, he reports into work each day with Sr. Carmel. He makes the rounds at Shepherds’ Pathway, learning to sit contentedly on people’s laps while being held and stroked. This prepares him for his future duties of sitting on the laps of clients who are in need of healing.
Shepherds’ Pathway supports people in their life journeys by providing holistic and comprehensive mental health services. To serve the clients who come to Shepherd’s Pathway, practitioners offer an array of tactile, nonverbal experiences to promote awareness of deeply personal emotional issues. Dog therapy is one of many important and effective therapeutic tools in trauma and grief counseling. The animal’a presence in the therapy room can help open a window into the client’s underlying issues.
“Dog therapy is a proven technique for helping people work through emotional crises,” said Sr. Carmel Irving, therapist and co-founder of Shepherd’s Pathway.
“A therapy dog can have a profound ability to touch and engage survivors of trauma. People who are prone to depression or anxiety often calm down when petting a dog,” she said.
Sparkles is the warm body on a lap. He is the non-threatening presence of another living being. He is the bearer of unconditional love.
When Sparkles is a year old he will be trained to interact with clients proactively so that when a client exhibits evidence of high stress or anxiety, he will soothe their fears or ease the anxiety they feel when talking about their lives or the past. For now, he is being socialized daily so that he doesn’t develop a fear of people and so he accepts being picked up and embraced by people he doesn’t know.
I think he loves me
“When we walk Sparkles we encourage people we meet in the park and on the street to reach down and pet him or pick him up. This includes people of all heights, sizes and colors. And it includes people wearing hats and carrying large bags. It also includes people pushing grocery carts, moving in wheelchairs and walking with canes, walkers and baby strollers,” said Sr. Cathie Boerboom, a therapist and co-founder of Shepherds’ Pathway.
Most dog owners don’t encourage this level of public interaction with their dogs. For Shepherds’ Pathway, however, it’s crucial that Sparkles trust people if he is to become a successful therapy dog. He also must have self-assurance and not be frightened by adults or children who walk up to him or who are using any sort of assistive device.
The early socialization and training is paying off and paving the way for Sparkles to become an exemplary therapy dog when he is a little bit older.
On one of the afternoon walks that Sparkles and I took, we strolled through a park where homeless men and women gather. Like a powerful magnet, Sparkles drew to him the people who were lingering on the pathway and under trees. The “aw” factor instantly took hold, with people vying excitedly for the attention and affection of the friendly and socially confident little yorkie.
One homeless woman sat with a companion watching Sparkles and smiling at his antics. She snapped her fingers and murmured for Sparkles to come to her. Sparkles pricked his ears and pranced over to her, where he stood ready to be scooped up and placed on her lap. After snuggling Sparkles and receiving his wet puppy kisses, she gently released him and set him back on the ground. As Sparkles and I stepped away to continue our walk I heard the woman say to her companion, “I think he loves me.”
I grinned and thought to myself that Sparkles is on his way to becoming a good therapy dog. People will indeed be healed once they are cast under the spell of Sparkles.
Read more about Shepherds’ Pathway in the May issue of Items of Interest, the newsletter for Sisters of the Good Shepherd Province of Mid-North America. You can also learn more about Shepherds‘ Pathway on the ministry’s website. Learn more about animal assisted therapy at google books.