Therapy starts at home

People often tell me that what I am doing with Vivian is a wonderful thing.  They give me great credit for being altruistic, giving, caring, and loving in our volunteer work with Therapy Dogs International.   I always say it isn’t about me, it is about the dog and the residents.  I would not do this if Vivian did not seem to love it, and she does.   I would not do this if the residents did not seem to react positively and if I didn’t hear that Vivian is making a difference in their lives.   I know that our visits to the nursing home are not about me,   I am just the handler that gets Vivian to her job.   In fact I had a colleague come into my office, look at Vivian’s picture and say “How do you know the poodle that visits my mom?”   I laughed and told her, “I am her transportation”. 

So what part of this volunteer team is about me?  I had many reasons for wanting to train Vivian to be a therapy dog.  I wanted to spend time with my poodle, one on one time, doing something positive yet with other people and dogs.  My first poodle was a grand dame, and we loved each other unconditionally, but I don’t think I did her any favors keeping her to myself.  She had a great life and really blossomed when we married Greg and moved to the country to live with him and Jack, his Golden Retriever.  Poodles need people, they are as a breed a very social lot and I perhaps hadn’t given Anna enough social interaction.   I was determined that Vivian would benefit from my mistakes with Anna.  I wanted her to be able to go with Greg and Ike in the car to run errands and be able to run around the farm, not on a leash.  I wanted to be able to do something with my poodle that would get me out of the house and feel like I was giving something back.   I grew up with parents who volunteered and have siblings who give back to their communities in many ways.  For the last 30 years I had worked, and traveled and moved and worked some more.  Frankly, I was a little worried about what I would do with my time when I retire!  Yep, that’s all the good stuff I told myself when I decided to train Vivian as a therapy dog; it was about Vivian and about the others, nothing about this was for me.

Way to lie to yourself Peggy.  It was all about me. We picked up Vivian two years ago on July 15th.   Shortly thereafter I started to hurt.  Nothing big, just pins and needles in my feet and hands when I got up in the morning.  Then I started to hobble a little while walking to the bathroom and found that I could not hold my coffee cup with one hand anymore.  The shampoo lid seemed to stick harder than it had and I just quit tightening the lid on my make up.   My hands would be really swollen by the time I got home from work, and my tennis shoes that had always fit me no longer did.  I blamed it on being middle age, overweight with genetically bad bones.   Little Vivian would wake me, needing to go out, and I would get up hobble to the back door (hoping beyond hope that I could move fast enough for her) and then when she came in sit and watch the sun rise while snuggling with a puppy and running my frozen hands through puppy fur until they moved again.  I didn’t talk about how much I hurt although my husband knew, heck he lives with me and couldn’t help but hear the “ow, ow, OW!” as I hobbled around the bedroom.   By the time I got to work I was doing pretty well, and by the time I got home from work I could barely find the energy to make dinner and move from the TV to bed.  Vivian required care and walking and love.  I had to go outside with her.  I had to teach her to come when called and not bite, and sit on command and go outside on her own.   The other positive was that Vivian could make me laugh.  It never mattered how bad I hurt, Vivian would do something crazy and I would laugh.  It is hard to turn inward when you have a puppy in the house.

I think it was realizing what Vivian was doing for my mental health that made me want to do therapy work.  If she could help me feel better every morning, and give me a reason to get out of bed, she surely could help others.  And if she needed me to help her do that, I would also need to keep going and focus on the training and the work of TDI and not on my pain.   Fast forward two years.    I am in Rochester at the Mayo Clinic and I have just finished my last appointment of a long day.  I call my husband and say, “It is definitive, I have Inflammatory Poly Rheumatoid Arthritis”   Later I receive a text from him, “Vivian is waiting for you, she has her bandana on”.