In August a flight delay caused me to spend more time in the Calgary airport than I wanted to. As I waited I saw several volunteers walking dogs wearing red vests that said “pet me.” I’d heard of therapy dogs in airports, but had never before seen them.
I shyly patted one on the head, but with my destination only an hour away, there were more stressed travellers than I deserving of their attention. What I really wanted to do was crouch down and wrap my arms around him.
Years ago if you asked anyone what came to mind when they thought of service animals, the answers would be limited to police K-9 units or guide dogs for the blind. Things have changed. Now a range of animals are trained for therapy in such places as hospitals, nursing homes, women’s emergency shelters, in universities at exam time, at disaster areas for those who have experienced trauma, for PTSD sufferers, those with autism, people who have depression, anxiety or other forms of mental illness, for children and adults with special needs, at-risk youth. The list is long.
Dogs are not the only animals trained as therapy pets. Horses, cats, birds, rabbits, llamas and alpacas are among the animals I discovered when researching therapy pets. Llamas and alpacas? Their “huge eyes, soft fur and affectionate and expressive nature” apparently make them well-suited for this realm of treatment. I don’t know how they handle walking across a shiny linoleum floor.
Crows are not among the birds one considers therapeutic, but a friendship in Vancouver has captured the interest of thousands of followers on Facebook. Two years ago a Vancouver man happened to be in a yard when a young crow was released into the wild after having recovered from being abandoned. To the man’s surprise, the crow alighted onto his arm and wouldn’t leave. Canuck is a wild crow, but he singled this man out and they forged a special bond. In a documentary Shawn told the interviewer that Canuck came to him at a time in his life when he had been overwhelmed by depression. “I have no idea why he hopped up on my arm . . . but the world started looking beautiful again. I noticed myself looking at things a lot differently . . . I was a lot less judgmental, a lot less angry, a lot less sad . . . he helped me in a way I can never repay.”
I feel the same way about my cats, Perdy and Linus. Studies show that the purr vibrations of cats, which are in a range of 20-140 Hz, are known to be medically therapeutic. Having a cat can calm nerves, lower blood pressure, help prevent and treat cardiovascular disease, strengthen the immune system and even help you live longer.
When I’m home Perdy will rest on my lap, or snooze on my chest. She knows when I’m upset, or else laughing — she can’t tell the difference. But in both instances she comes running over to look closely into my face and put her paws on my shoulder. Linus, on the other hand, is reserved and fearful of strangers and noises. The bond with him has been an evolving sense of trust. There is a particular sort of thrill when he tentatively approaches me with his eyes round and black, and jumps up beside me to lay his large head on my knee.
I don’t know if their soothing companionship will extend my life or not, but the connection we share feels like healing. Indeed, my children feel the same way: there are six cats among us.
When I was almost 10 years old my mother, never an animal lover, sat down to tell me there was going to be a surprise in our family. With breathless excitement I said, “We’re getting a dog!” It was my most fervent wish despite having been bitten in the face, at age 3, by a cocker spaniel. Never liked them. With dismay and some impatience, she said, no, a baby. I was crestfallen. With three younger brothers, I thought another baby was the last thing we needed (with apologies to Greg, who is a gift to us all). I’ve never had a dog (not yet), but our son Gerard and his wife, Sarah, have fulfilled my desire, at least vicariously. They adopted Bear in August from the SPCA. At the time he was found by a rescue organization, Bear was injured from having been beaten up by other dogs, he was starving and tick-infested. Despite his trauma, he was sweet and loving, and remains so. He is also extremely grateful for his new home. Bear spent Thanksgiving weekend with our family and, for the first time in my life, a dog has leaned his body into mine, and allowed me to put my arms around his fluffy, furry neck.
On our first solo walk on Thanksgiving Day, I knew exactly where Bear and I were going to go. We strolled over a golden path of fallen poplar leaves on our way to the former Elizabethan Sisters’ property where a small shrine to Mary is nestled into a grove of shrubs. On that hallowed ground, only a few days after the feast of St. Francis, I stood with Bear — his feathered tail wagging vigorously — and offered a prayer.
“Your goodness is turned upon every living thing and your grace flows to all your creatures. From our souls to theirs goodness flows, touching each of us with the reflection of your love. Grant to our special animal companions long and healthy lives” (From prayers to St. Francis).