What do Max, Buster and Bailey have in common?
Answer: They are all therapy dogs that have been a part of Angel Foundation!
Recently I posted a photo of Max, a therapy dog, at our Education and Support Series on the Angel Foundation Facebook page. Max came to visit with the kids who are attending our sessions. After posting, I noticed an interesting trend; the majority of people who ‘liked’ the post were parents whose children have benefitted from a therapy dog visit at one of our groups. This response was the impetus for me to highlight this program facet in this blog.
Buster is famous!
In 2006, Dori Weisbrod started volunteering with Facing Cancer Together. It was at her suggestion that Buster, her boxer therapy dog, join us as a volunteer at Kids Kamp to become the first therapy dog to work with our families.
Buster and Dori’s work became so vital and meaningful to our families that it caught the attention of Dawn A. Marcus, author and MD. Marcus captures moments, actions, and interventions of Buster in her newly published book: Therapy Dogs in Cancer Care: A Valuable Complementary Treatment. In this book, she explores the valuable role of therapy dogs in programs caring for cancer. She notes that “dogs that visit patients with cancer have been convincingly shown to reduce stress, loneliness, and mood disturbance.” At Angel Foundation, we notice the benefits of a therapy dog on the entire family when a parent has cancer.
In Marcus’ book: she summarized “the presence of the therapy dog often enhances positive interactions between children and staff and fosters an improved ability of children to benefit from other interventions. For example, when children participate in a group in which a dog is present, staff have noticed that children tend to be more attentive, focused, and better listeners.” At Angel Foundation, we have noticed children, who may have a hard time connecting with the adults and other children, will gravitate to the therapy dog and will share feelings with the dog they may not share with others.
Buster has had a lasting effect. Here are a few quotes and outcomes from his visits:
“Buster makes you feel heard.”
–11 year- old boy
“The reason I like Buster is he never says to me ‘you’re going to be okay.’” “He just listens.”
–6 year-old girl
“I can tell Buster feels the same way I do sometimes.”
–8 year-old boy
These visits have had long-lasting effects on the children. Some children still ask for Buster. One family got a dog after their positive interactions with Buster.
Following Buster’s lead:
Unfortunately, Buster died of cancer a few years ago but he paved the way in helping to create and shape our dog therapy program. We have been fortunate to have visits by many therapy dogs including Bailey, a black lab, and Ben, a golden retriever, who have followed in Buster’s footsteps.
Most recently, Max, another golden retriever, has been joining us. Max’s handler, Shannon says that “Max listens to everyone and is also quite perceptive; he knows when someone wants comfort or attention.” She notes that “when people are with Max they appear to just be enjoying the moment.” At Kids Kamp this summer, she recalls a little boy “who seemed to be a bit of an outsider. He was great to Max and with Max and with this his peers saw a different side of him.” She adds, “this was his opportunity to shine.”
These interactions and outcomes from therapy dog interaction help us achieve Facing Cancer Together’s mission by:
- enhancing communication–through increased conversation with other kids petting the dog, the handler, and with the dog
- Lessening isolation
- Reducing distress level
- Expressing feelings
- Fostering healthy self-care–being with an animal: if the children have a hand on the therapy dog, I noticed they are able to listen even more effectively to our conversation.
Role of therapy dogs at Angel Foundation:
- Children have the option of visiting the therapy dog one-on –one with the handler and can ‘talk’ with the dog about they are feeling.
- As a group, children visit with the dog and have the opportunity to interact with it–Dog stays in room and children know he is there if they need to visit with him (maybe feeling sad, etc)
On a personal note:
If it’s up to me, we will always have therapy dogs in our program because I know, first hand, how important unconditional love is especially when in the midst of treatment. When I was treated 15 years ago for non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, my dog Skooter, was the dog by my side. As I would lay on the couch recovering from another round of chemotherapy, Skooter would sit by my side and be present. She was there as I cried, screamed (at no one in particular!) and when I meditated. Even though my husband, Ben, was of tremendous support, he had to go to work everyday. Skooter was there 24/7 and would listen to it all!
Do any of you have a connection past or present, with a pet or other animal that really helped you during the cancer experience or any other difficult experiences in your life?
By Janice Haines, co-director of Angel Foundation’s Facing Cancer Together program