Slipping the lanyard with the pair of hospital IDs over my head, I walk to the car and open the door for my partner. He jumps in the back, waiting for me to lower the window and, soon enough, I see him in the rear-view mirror – head out, ears flapping back, and tail rhythmically wagging. I swear he is smiling.
Moose, my chocolate Labrador, and I work in a hospital volunteer brigade dubbed Paws for Patients. I believe that while he is ministering to lots of people with fragile health, I am the true beneficiary of his friendly demeanor. Laboring as a pet therapist is Moose’s day job, one that takes up a few hours of his time each week. The balance of his leisurely life is spent with me, in our nearly empty nest, since we are the ones left in the very quiet house after my husband heads to the office and our daughter leaves for classes. As a high-school student, with one foot out the door toward college, her departure will make our numbers even smaller.
When we are at work, the “therapy” we provide is, truthfully, just hanging out and spending time with people. Although the requirements are largely conversational, I try to approach each session with the professionalism I used to practice daily. Since I left the corporate world 10 years ago, the only jobs I have held were on the PTA roster, just like so many other women I know who cycle through those while managing their other big role as mom. Somewhere between stuffing envelopes for the back-to- school packets and stuffing hotdogs into buns at the football concession stand, I began to feel the urge to find work outside of the home. One child had graduated and the other had aged out of most of what the PTA focused on. Frankly, I had tired of it and felt that the committee meetings and fundraisers needed younger women who could bring the enthusiasm I once had. I also started to feel ridiculous admitting that I was a stay-at-home mom for a very self-sufficient teenager and a labrador. But returning to the 12-hour day, five days a week career held no appeal to me. While I love the Big City, I was so done with commuter trains.
I initially got involved with Paws for Patients after noticing an article in the hospital newsletter titled "Volunteers with Dogs Needed." Feeling like I had just been thrown a proverbial bone, I signed up for an evaluation (which we passed) and training. As for Moose, my guess is that he would have never rejected an opportunity for more attention or more treats. I knew he would look as dapper, if not more so, in the green vest than Bubba Watson did in his green Masters jacket. Little did I know that Moose would soon be issued business cards and an official photo ID.
We completed the training and passed the certification test established by a national non-profit called Pet Partners. The hospital assigned us to two units where we began to visit weekly. Upon arriving, we head for the elevator and go up to the floor where we see our patients who suffer from a wide array of psychiatric illnesses. Once inside the locked doors, Moose stops where I ask him to for hugs or hellos. He leans into the men and women whose days are so long and soon, strokes lead to full belly rubs. This kind of attention for a dog is hard to beat. It is almost impossible to convey the transformative ability Moose has to lift the spirits of the patients we see. I am amazed that my sweet Lab relates to the adults whose afflictions include schizophrenia, depression, addiction and most likely other illnesses that a layperson like me has never heard of. Some of the people we see are able to leave after a few weeks of short-term treatment. Others remain in their lock-down hallways for months and often longer. When we learn that a patient is being discharged for an adult home (for some) or back home (for others) we are thrilled to say good-bye; if they return we are broken-hearted for them. Moose greets all with equal affection and for that he is dear to me.