It is the year 2009, and my collie, Molly, and I are going to our favorite place.
The hallways of the nursing home and rehabilitation facility are usually quiet, but today they are packed. Molly, me, and three other eager therapy dogs and their handlers stride down the halls. The dogs are walking quickly, tails wagging, eyes shining. We reach a set of double doors, and my mom calls over one of the nurses to let us in.
I look down at Molly. “Ready to go to work?”
We walk through a set of heavy doors and into a white room. The door clicks and locks behind us; a nurse will have to let us out again when it is time to leave. While not every place we visit has a floor specifically for Alzheimer’s patients, this one does. I remember being afraid of this room the first time we visited, but now it is one of our necessary stops every month. Despite its bland white-ness, the room is not uninviting. A soap opera or some other daytime show is playing quietly on an old TV in one corner. There are several potted plants resting on windowsills. A nurse sits at a large circular desk near the back of the room. She smiles when she sees us.
“The dogs are here!” she calls out, her voice bright and cheerful. I notice, though, that it is not a forced joy; she really is glad to see us.
Molly presses against my side, lifting her head to look up at me.
“Do you want to go see our friends?” I ask her.
The other dogs have gone off to visit with other patients. They are sitting with a man on a couch, showing off fun tricks to a group of two or three excited woman in one corner, and sitting on another patient's lap. Molly and I go to visit the nurse first, who bends down on her hands and knees and scratches behind Molly’s ears. She never stops smiling.
We visit with several other people on the floor as well. We walk over to a woman sitting at one of the tables playing cards. I think she recognizes us; she smiles as we approach.
“Would you like to pet my dog?” I ask her.
She nods, but Molly is already moving towards her and putting her head in the woman’s lap; they are friends. The woman has kind blue eyes. I talk with her for awhile about dogs and yes, isn’t it wonderful that I have a collie and isn’t the weather lovely today. The whole while Molly sits at the woman’s side. Throughout our conversation, the woman’s fingers never leave Molly’s fur.
Making our rounds down the halls, we stop and say hello to various patients. Every single one of them, even if they cannot speak, smile when they see us. Molly greets each and every single one of them with quiet dignity and poise. She goes to those who need comfort, often pulling a little at her leash to enter the correct room. For some of the patients, she is simply a quiet presence. She lies at the foot of their bed or next to their chair. She is there for them to hug or hold, and I do not say a word. For others, she is a catalyst for conversation: we walk into their room and they are suddenly animated and alive telling me about their childhood pets and just look at how gorgeous your dog is young lady. They are laughing and Molly is wagging her tail, and I am smiling, too. It is hard not to smile when you are around so much raw joy.
That was over seven years ago, but the memories of my time visiting those patients are still fresh in my mind. The laughter and the joy, I think, is what I remember most from all of our visits: no matter what was going on in the world, no matter how much pain and suffering was happening, there was always joy when the dogs visited. The white, silent room became the room of laughter and fun, even if only for a few minutes.
Molly became certified as a therapy dog in 2009.
We visited two different nursing homes and rehabilitation facilities twice a month. Because I was under eighteen, my mom was also certified and came with me on all of our visits. Molly passed away in 2015. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about our time as working therapy dog team. The people we visited our still so special to me. I am grateful that I was given the opportunity to touch their lives, even for a moment. I learned so much about how to love and care for other people in my experience as a therapy dog handler.
Sometimes, I found, simply sitting and being with another person is enough. Sometimes, you do not need words. Sometimes there are no words you can say that will adequately express an emotion or reach a person.Sometimes, all you need is a dog...someone to listen. Someone to hold on to.
While I learned many valuable lessons in my time as a therapy dog handler, I think this one is the most important: joy does not require words. Love and compassion do not require words. The best gift you can give someone who is struggling is your willingness to listen to their story.
I am so grateful that I was able to share the love of my dog with so many people.
I learned in 2009 that love does not require language. Sometimes, love is a dog and a kind stranger telling you that you matter. Love is laughing and smiling even when you cannot speak. Love is universal.
In 2017, I will do my very best to remember that.