Pet Therapy at Bereavement Camp: The Dog Days of Summer
Posted by Laurie Michaels, Pet Therapy Volunteer
JourneyCare pet therapy volunteers bring a variety of trained, furry companions to visit patients in their homes, assisted-living and care facilities, and our Hospice CareCenters. They may also comfort campers at Camp Courage, JourneyCare’s bereavement camp for children ages 6-13, who are grieving the loss of a loved one.
Twelve years ago, I was a patient at the Rehab Institute of Chicago (RIC). The day that I was transferred there was a low point for me as I’d hoped instead to be going home. As I settled into my new surroundings, I noticed a dog and its owner standing in the hallway outside of my room. Before I knew it, the dog was at my bedside, resting its head on the side of my bed and looking up at me with eyes of love. The dog was one of several therapy dogs assigned to work at RIC. To this day, that visit stands out as a turning point in my long recovery from major surgery and multiple strokes. As a life-long dog lover, I told myself that someday, when I had the time, I would train a therapy dog so we could bring the same peace and joy that I’d experienced to others.
Nearly two years ago the time was right, and Darcy came into our lives. Darcy is a golden retriever who was born in Texas. As soon as she arrived we began intense training so the basic commands of sit, down, stay, heal and come would become automatic for her.
When Darcy was nine months old, we enrolled in a therapy dog class through A Closer Bond in Palatine. At one year, we were finally able to be evaluated by Alliance of Therapy Dogs, a national organization which certifies and insures therapy dog teams. Last November, Darcy and I became officially certified as a Pet Therapy Team and began volunteering with JourneyCare.
I think Darcy and I were made for each other! Darcy brings her training as a therapy dog, an endearing personality and temperament, and a permanent smile that is what people most associate with golden retrievers. For my part, I’ve worked for 35 years as an RN, and for the past nine years as an ordained Episcopal deacon, doing pastoral care and hospital chaplaincy in a variety of settings.
While together as a team, we can’t take away the suffering we encounter, we can bring a sense of calm, reassurance, connections to emotional bonds with prior pets and a sense of presence. With each unique encounter, we try to connect not only with patients, but also with the families and loved ones, and the staff that surrounds each patient.
They say therapy dogs are born, not made. Any pet can be taught the proper behavior, but a pet’s inherent temperament cannot be changed. A therapy dog must have a rock-solid temperament and should be outgoing and friendly toward everyone and toward other dogs.
The research is overwhelming about the benefit of pet therapy. It’s been shown that our blood pressure lowers when we pet an animal and that we live longer if we have animals.
Therapy dogs provide companionship, soothe frayed nerves, ease discomfort and break down social barriers. A visit from a furry friend can bring smiles and joy to even the bleakest situations. No wonder therapy dogs are now seen in hospitals and nursing homes, hospice care centers, dental offices, schools, prisons, at natural disasters, with veterans and at airports.
It doesn’t take long to be in the presence of Darcy to experience firsthand the therapeutic effects of pet therapy. When Darcy is “working” she wears a special harness that identifies her as a therapy dog.
Before we leave the house, after grooming her, I tell Darcy we’re going to “work” and she immediately runs to the room and waits for me to put on her harness. She’s learned that when she’s working she must use “company manners”, can’t lick or jump, must obey all commands and must ignore any food that’s fallen on the floor. (Perhaps the hardest of all for a Golden Retriever!)
Joining JourneyCare and Comforting Campers
In July, Darcy and I joined the staff and campers at JourneyCare’s Camp Courage, a bereavement camp for kids who have experienced the loss of a loved one. Over the course of the week, Darcy interacted with most of the campers in one way or another. The look of joy and delight on the faces of the campers upon seeing her were priceless.
Darcy, in turn, offered them the gift of presence. Whatever emotions they may have been feeling or thinking were acceptable to her as she simply stood or sat or laid down next to them while they gently stroked her head and spoke to her. What a gift it is to simply stop and be present to another being!
Darcy’s experiences that week were too many to write down, but one in particular stands out. On the first day, the campers and counselors gathered into a drum circle inside Sorensen Hall. The minute the drumming started, Darcy’s ears went down and she pulled me toward the exit. As a young dog, she can still be frightened by loud unexpected sounds and her ears and tucked tail told me we needed to go outside away from the drums. We found a spot to sit on the steps of a nearby cabin and I tried to comfort and reassure her.
A few minutes later, a young camper ran out from the Hall with a counselor close behind. I waved them over and soon learned that he too was afraid of the loud sound from the drums. A few minutes later another camper ran out. Soon, Darcy was surrounded by four young campers all of whom were afraid of the drums. I explained to them that Darcy also was afraid and pointed out that she was still panting and unsure. As soon as I told them, they started to speak softly to Darcy and gently stroke her head and back. What a grace-filled moment to see the young campers comforting the therapy dog, who was in turn comforting the campers! We had created our own circle-of care and compassion.
On the last day of camp, those same campers made a point to say goodbye to sweet Darcy.
These days, Darcy can been seen in the halls of the Barrington CareCenter, visiting staff, families and patients. She also regularly visits a program for adults with disabilities, visits schools and travels to other requests that come our way.
If Darcy could speak, I know she would tell you that she can’t wait to go back to Camp Courage. Maybe next summer Darcy will find the courage to join in the drumming circle! If not you'll find her peacefully waiting to comfort others under the shade tree outside.
JourneyCare needs more four-legged volunteers to provide unconditional love! On a regular or as-needed basis, certified therapy dogs and their owners visit patients at private residences, our CareCenters, and skilled nursing or assisted living facilities. Become a pet therapy volunteer for JourneyCare! Visit our website to apply!