Take One Dog and Call Me in the Morning
By Marian Silverman, M.S.,M.F.T.,L.E.P.

For centuries humans have been magnetized to animal energy and have harnessed it to improve their lives. Without dogs to guard us, guide us, protect our boundaries, herd our animals, and pull our sleds into frozen wilderness, life as we know it would not exist. Dogs also graced their way into our modern world and have become our treasured companions, and often our therapists, as they telegraph their healing energy through their cheerful demeanor, direct and honest gaze and unwavering affection. Perhaps the greatest gift they offer is their capacity to love us unconditionally, accepting our human frailties without judgment, and loving us just the way we are.

Animal-Assisted Therapy
Lying in the corner, on a sheep-skin pad, Holly Go Lightly waits. Her mouth is curved in that Golden Retriever grin; her tail thumps the floor in anticipation, while she holds the ‘down-stay’ position, waiting for her signal to go to work.   

Nearby, elderly patients sit in chairs placed in a circle. They also wait, some without purpose, others simply waiting to die.  There is no conversation.  Some of the patients look confused, as if they don’t know where they are; others mumble to themselves. One man is slumped over, half asleep, perhaps medicated. The atmosphere in the room is heavy with the depression that comes with Alzheimer’s, Dementia, and other psychiatric disorders.

Vigilant, Holly watches me.  She sits sphinx-like on all fours, head up, ears forward and alert, watching and listening for her cue.  I point to the patients, and give her the release words, “Go say hello.” In a flash, she’s up, her tail swaying gracefully as she trots to the circle of chairs, moving through the one space we have left open for her. She is off lead, but I am close behind.  She stands quietly, scanning the room. Someone is in distress.

Arms thrashing, his body writhes in the hospital chair, while his moans and groans are heard over the mumblings of the other Alzheimer’s patients. The Golden Retriever moves quickly to his side. She stands in front of him staring for a moment, and then lays her head in his lap. From deep in the animal’s throat we hear a low vibrating note, “ummmmm.” The patient‘s groans change to sounds that match hers, and together they hum, “Ummm Mmmmm.” His body becomes still. His arms relax. Now, one hand reaches slowly to touch her head as they continue to vocalize together. The dog doesn’t move but looks up
into his eyes. The man returns her gaze, regarding her calmly.  We have just witnessed Animal-Assisted Therapy at UCLA’s Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital.

Holly moves on to the man slumped over in his chair.  She stares at him, just as she stares at closed doors waiting for them to open magically for her.  Maybe he hears her breathing, or feels her presence in the same instinctive way that we know when someone is watching us.  He opens his eyes to see a dog looking at him.  He appears confused as to what to do about it, until she lifts her paw and puts it into his
lap.  From somewhere in his memory, he recognizes the gesture, and takes the extended paw in his hand. With his free hand, he touches the top of her head, and whispers, “Good dog.”

Holly approaches each person in need; the suicidal kid, the withdrawn adult, or the wildly agitated Alzheimer patient.  She looks into their eyes, offers her paw, or leans into their bodies.  She stays with each patient until her presence is acknowledged; she waits, not moving from the spot until a hand reaches out to touch her.

The Power of the Canine Nose
Without any cues from me, my canine partner can sense agitation in the group. I don’t interfere with her process by talking to her or giving her instructions while she is assessing the room. I let her nose do the work. The extraordinary power of the canine nose enables dogs to diagnose depression, anxiety, disorientation, and psychiatric disorders through being alert to chemical changes in the body.  They anticipate crisis the same way medical-alert dogs predict seizure and heart attack, detect breast and bladder cancer and warn diabetics of low blood sugar. They smell it.

A Profound Gift Staring Us in the Face
The idea of animals as therapists is not new. The ancient Greeks believed that dogs could cure illness and kept them in their temples as “co-therapists.”  Today we work with designated animals using their natural capacity to create well-being and call them “therapy dogs.” In a hospital setting, we watch in wonder as the cardio-vascular monitors show a drop in blood pressure and heart rates, often within minutes of the dog settling on the patient’s bed. We listen as the elderly Alzheimer individual, who has forgotten the names of his children, remembers his beloved childhood pets.  The transformational power of the human-animal bond is a profound gift staring us in the face. It might even save our lives. 

These are excerpts from the book in progress: “Take One Dog and Call Me in the Morning, Amazing Therapy Dogs, A Prescription for Healing.” In l994 Marian and Holly Go Lightly (certified therapy dog) helped launch UCLA’s People-Animal Connection program (PAC) and were the first human-
canine team permitted inside the confidential Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital.

Marian, a licensed family therapist, educational psychologist and animal-assisted therapy specialist was a consultant for the PAC program training volunteer teams until Holly’s death in 2002. The program they developed for Neuro-Psychiatrics is still being used in the hospital.

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