The small waiting room in the emergency ward was oppressive. I had been alone there for over an hour while waiting to be admitted to the psych ward. The only thing that kept me calm and sane was the presence of my guide dog lying at my feet.
Finally a nurse came in and said I could go up to the floor now but my dog couldn’t come with me because there was a patient with a severe dog allergy on the unit. I had to make arrangements for someone to stay with my dog. We had never been separated even overnight before and I went into yelling panic mode.
“You can’t take my dog!” I yelled. “I need my dog.”
Unfortunately, my pleas fell on deaf ears and resulted only in the sting of a needle–a shot full of drugs that would keep me sedated for the next hours. I kept protesting until my hand relaxed and dropped the leash as it was handed to my dog’s temporary guardian.
The next morning I dragged myself out of bed and found my way to the dining room for breakfast. I had been in this hospital before and knew the routine. But without my dog I felt bereft and grief-stricken. In first group, a goals group, we were asked to make a goal for the day. Mine was to get through the activities without being focused on not having my dog. I couldn’t quite do it and talked about my loneliness and grief in one of the groups. After group, a social worker came to my room and told me I was forbidden to discuss my dog in group because I would make the man with the dog allergy feel bad. Never mind how I felt. But I knew there were penalties for going against the rules so I kept quiet.
For the next two weeks I went through the motions but said little in groups. My depression and anxiety, which had brought me to the hospital in the first place, only grew worse. My dog was my guide but he was also therapeutic. I needed him and he needed me.
After two weeks, the dog allergic patient was discharged and I was allowed to have my dog again. The first night he created quite a stir on the unit. He barked at every nurse or mental health tech who came into the room. But after he had gotten to know them, the barking ceased.
Most of the patients loved the dog and I would sometimes take his harness off during free time and allow whoever wanted to pet the dog to do so. Most found it calming and soothing.
Unfortunately, there were two rather vocal people on the unit who were afraid of dogs. One was a young woman who was often confined to her room because of disruptive behavior. Whenever we passed by her room she would yell at the top of her lungs, “This is a mental health unit! No dogs allowed on a mental health unit!” Another young man ran the other way whenever he saw me and my dog Isaac. I tried to tell these people that Isaac was a calm and friendly dog, but for a while they couldn’t seem to believe that. I began to worry that because of the strong reactions of these patients, I might be forced to give up Isaac again.
A few days after Isaac had come on the unit I walked past Cindy’s room expecting her to launch into her usual diatribe about dogs not being allowed on the unit. But she didn’t. I heard her in the room moving around. What was she doing? I didn’t know. But in the days ahead her outbursts diminished and gradually she came out of her room and would sit in the day room when I was there with Isaac. During one of those times, I noticed her moving closer and closer to me until she was standing right next to me. In a quiet voice she asked if the dog would hurt her. I said I could promise that he wouldn’t. She reached out a tentative hand to pet Isaac and he stood calmly while she petted him. The next day she approached again and we repeated the performance. A few days later when she came to pet Isaac, he gave her a gentle lick. Then she sat down on the floor with him and hugged him. Her fear was gone and for the next three weeks she was one of Isaac’s most faithful of friends.
With Donny, the runner, it took longer. But about a week after Cindy had gotten over her fear, Donny walked, not ran, by Isaac. As with Cindy, he gradually got closer and closer and finally began petting Isaac. His transformation was even more dramatic than Cindy’s because he started wanting to play and rough house with Isaac and then I had to curb his enthusiasm somewhat.
Guide dog trainers have told me that a guide dog shouldn’t also serve as a therapy dog. Over and over again, I have proved them wrong. In hospitals, nursing homes, and schools his therapeutic talents have shined. Of course, I always took the harness off when others touched him. I kept things under control. But I saw non-communicative patients start talking to Isaac. I saw fears disappear. I saw Isaac’s loving personality win over even some of the crustiest nurses and aides. Isaac wasn’t trained as a therapy dog. He fell into the role rather by accident. But he was an effective guide and therapy dog for many years. He was indeed my accidental therapist.