Sunday, September 15, 2013

Summer Magic and Therapy Dogs

As a therapy dog, Wrangell enjoys being surrounded by admiring fans.
It is early June, the beginning of summer. Yellow Lab Wrangell, sporting an orange vest with a Therapy Dogs Inc. patch, walks into one of the rooms at the day facility for the intellectually disabled in Danville, VA. Therapy dog, Prissy, a perky little black Pomeranian smartly dressed in the latest dog fashion and her handler, Betty, join Wrangell and I making the rounds between the tables. Several people sit at tables doing puzzles, drawing and playing games, but the activity stops abruptly as soon as we enter. Most of the people are just a little nervous and prefer to watch the dogs. A few braver ones tentatively touch, talking low, cradling the dogs' heads in their hands, fingering soft velvet ears and coarser fur across their backs.

In one of the game rooms occupied by residents,

far back in the corner slumped behind a large round table, sits a solitary man about thirty years of age. Although the man does not seem to notice the visiting dogs, as I slowly approach with Wrangell, he grasps his lunch bag and becomes agitated. One of the staff turns to him. "Joel, would you like to pet the dog?" Holding onto his lunch sack for dear life, Joel makes an unhappy sound. His tense body signals loud and clear - No, absolutely not. Wrangell and I retreat, and the staff lady gives us a faint smile and shrug. It's OK. Never push a dog on anyone, you do not know what sort of experience they may have had. Better to step back and give things time.

In the photo at right, Wrangell tries out a noise machine at the facility. He listens to the different noises made when he steps on the colored blocks. Fun!

As the summer progresses and our two therapy dogs continue their weekly visits to the facility, we start greeting people by their first names and making genuine friends. Relationships between the residents, staff and the dogs bud and blossom. The rooms fill with smiles and laughter. Over time the dogs learn which ones like to gently rough them up, which like to lightly caress them and with which they need to be ever so still as a mouse. Joel watches from his solitary corner, sheltered behind his big round table. Never have I seen him walk or talk, yet I notice how his head and eyes follow the dogs as they move from person to person. Often he clutches his lunch bag, but not so tightly as before.

Early August and a chorus of greetings, like old friends, meets us as we walk the halls and enter the rooms. As Wrangell and I slowly approach Joel, I can tell this time is different. For once his face is open, inviting. We move closer. Leaning toward the big Lab just a little, Joel raises his hand and lightly touches Wrangell on his head. A pat! He quickly pulls the hand away, flashes a grin, then turns as the staff and I in amazed voices congratulate him for what he has just done. Why am I so surprised to see Joel touch the Lab's head? Haven't I seen before the magic therapy dogs work on people over time?

However the next week things have changed again. When Wrangell and I approach I can tell Joel is not as receptive. Yet he does slide over one chair, coming out of his corner, and crouches over a pegboard puzzle, working the pieces. I imagine it is his way of saying, "I am happy you are here." The next week, the last of August, is our final visit to the facility. Somehow it feels like the final act of a play. We promise our summer friends we will come back over the holidays. Understanding, they nod. Finally we enter Joel's usual room, and make our way to the back corner. Then Joel does a curious thing. Instead of extending his hand, he slowly, laboriously, leans down to Wrangell and offers his face. Wrangell gently licks his cheek. Again Joel offers his face, again the dog licks his cheek. With an exhaled breath we all laugh and exclaim, "Hey, Joel, he kissed you!" With a triumphant grin, Joel rears his upper body, leaning way back. His personal victory dance. Although he cannot talk, it is plain what he is feeling inside. It is magic to behold - the mysterious magic that dogs weave as they touch the hearts of people like Joel - and those nearby who get to witness and celebrate.

Note:  Thank-you to Danville-Pittsylvania County Community Services for giving me permission to post this story and the photos.

Therapy dogs Wrangell and Prissy take a break outside the Danville facility. We joke that the two dogs have all the bases covered. Wrangell is large, yellow, short-haired and male. Prissy is small, dark, long-haired and female!

Brad and Wrangell become friends.
Administrative staff enjoy the therapy dogs as much as the day-goers.


  1. That is such a sweet story and put a smile on my face. It is so amazing the impact dogs have on people. I always said if any of my puppies don't make it as a service dog, I want to get him/her certified as a therapy dog. You and Wrangell are doing some great work!

  2. Thank you! glad you liked the story. The more Wrangell and I do therapy work, the more fun we have. So many stories to tell too!