When my sister had her heart attack in December and was recovering in the hospital nothing made her light up like a therapy dog visit could. The trauma of having a massive heart attack, surgery, and a long stay in the cardiovascular ICU left her normally quiet self even quieter. But when a therapy dog came into the room McKenzie was McKenzie again. I'll never forget how she sat up and told her health story to the dog handler as she pet the therapy dog. That therapy dog gave my sister her voice back. The dog helped my sister feel like herself--the sweet, absolute animal-enthusiast she is. And having been away from my own dog for weeks, those therapy dog visits were the best gift, giving me the lightness and joy I needed to keep facing my sister's health battle as one of her caregivers.
Ever since those long weeks in December and January I have wanted to get another dog to train as a therapy animal. We were the recipients of so much love and care from visitors while my sister was in the hospital, and I so want to help other families in situations like ours. Even prior to those long weeks in the hospital Ryan and I have felt like our Cocker Spaniel, Dudley, is our personal therapy dog. When our circumstances have felt like a roller coaster, Dudley remains stable and sweet. And that's the beauty of dogs--they are a perspective-giving injection of joy, helping us see the world beyond our pain. Unfortunately, Duds isn't the best candidate to become a therapy dog, as he's a bit too skittish and untrusting of new people. (We think due to a not-so-great first five months before coming home to us.)
Enter Merton. A week ago Wednesday Ryan and I drove four hours away to small town Nebraska to pick up Mert. (He was a hell of a great deal, making the drive more than worth it!) Merton is an (almost) 10 week old German Shorthaired Pointer.
As I've been training to become a licensed professional counselor specializing in working with individuals with chronic health concerns, I have often thought it would be incredible to train a dog to become part of my practice. Dogs have a soothing, stabilizing presence that help us process and heal in a deeper, more immediate way. So, Mr. Merton and I will be training to become an animal-assisted psychotherapy team. Tomorrow we begin puppy preschool and obedience classes, and as he gets older we will likely attend a therapy dog workshop. Once he is a year old he can be evaluated to be an official therapy dog, but in the meantime he can begin training very soon in sessions with me at my counseling internship site. (As soon as he is a bit more house-trained and knows his basic commands!) For my own education I hope to become a Certified Animal-Assisted Psychotherapist (CAAP). This certification program will allow me to more intentionally integrate Merton into my counseling practice in ways that are most effective for clients. (It will take a while for me to get this, though, since the program's a bit pricey...) For now, I'm soaking up the puppy love and the physical and emotional benefits of caring for our adorable Mert. Here's a peak at some of our recent adventures: (You can also follow the daily adventures of Mert and his big brother Dudley on instagram at @dudleyandmerton)