ADVENTIST LA GRANGE MEMORIAL HOSPITAL: Healing Hearts with Echo the Therapy Dog
Adventist La Grange Memorial Hospital issued the following announcement on Feb. 28.
“Can I hug your dog?”
Echo had hardly climbed onto the couch when the young lady grabbed her. She hugged Echo and sobbed into her neck for a good 10 minutes. Then she got up and said, “Oh, that just made me feel so much better.”
Any dog owner can attest to the soothing effect their four-legged friend has on the psyche. But some dogs are trained for more, becoming a source of emotional, psychological and even spiritual healing for people in extreme anguish. These are therapy dogs, and I’m lucky enough to be able to work with one.
I’m a board-certified chaplain with AMITA Health, and I’ve been working mostly in behavioral health group therapy for 40 years. On July 3, 2017, I adopted a Polish Lowland Sheepdog and Kokoni mix, rescued from a Greek dump farm with four other puppies abandoned to die. Her rescuer gave her and the other puppies names so that they could travel abroad to get to their forever homes, and that’s how I ended up with Echo.
From her very first Puppy Socialization class, professional trainers urged me to train her as a therapy dog (not to be confused with a service dog or an emotional support animal), so that she could help me at work. Between February and August, 2018, Echo and I completed almost 1,000 hours of training, covering several levels of Obedience Training. She even completed Obstacles Level 1, the initial level of training offered to police and rescue dogs, and scored 86.5 percent in the course. In mid-July, we passed certification with Therapy Dogs International, Inc., and we’ve been providing animal-assisted therapy at AMITA Health Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital Hoffman Estates ever since.
Therapy Dogs Help a Lot of Different People
Though Echo and I can be called to work with patients anywhere in the hospital, we concentrate on work with patients in our inpatient and outpatient eating disorders programs, adolescent partial hospital programs and our high acuity inpatient adult program. Now, Echo and I facilitate at least two and sometimes three groups a day.
Having Echo as my partner in ministry is a game changer for my work with all our patients. I’m constantly in awe, experiencing her work with our inpatient eating disorders program. Though the prompts and content I bring to the group have changed little, Echo’s presence and availability to the patients transforms our sessions and allows patients who struggle to find safety and stability explore tender, healing feelings in her presence.
Echo and I work out of the medical building right across from the hospital, where she gets spoiled by all of her work friends at the office. After reconnecting and enjoying her office friends, Echo sometimes gets invited to work with patients individually. On Friday mornings, we go over to Camelot School, a school for kids with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and Down syndrome.
One thing that has always surprised me about Echo is the effect she has on the staff. She’ll just hang out and staff will pet her as they go by. If there’s been a stressful code on the unit, I’ll take her over to the nurse’s station after the code is cleared just to hang out for a little while. Just hanging out, she brings everybody’s moods up.
Just Being There Goes a Long Way
Animal-assisted therapy provides emotional and spiritual support just by inviting a calming presence into the space. Echo will lie in the middle of the group room floor and let patients just sort of cycle in and out of a circle around her, petting her and braiding her hair, or talking to her, or even just laying on her. She’s especially helpful with our mental health patients struggling with anxiety, and has a powerful impact on our eating disorder unit. She provides such a calming, positive presence to the group just by being there and allowing people to come up to her. She is that compassionate, accepting, forgiving, non-threatening presence that, I think, we all need.
Therapy Dogs vs. Service Dogs vs. Emotional Support Animals
I wanted a dog that could work with patients, and that’s exactly what an animal-assisted therapy dog is trained for. Echo does it all day long, with beauty and grace. A lot of people wonder how to get a service dog, but they are usually trained from the time they are weaned, learning to perform particular tasks to fill a specific client’s needs.
Emotional support animals perform a different role, helping ease the symptoms of anxiety, depression, loneliness and PTSD. But the thing about emotional support animal laws is that they’re very permissive. Emotional support animals are the ones you might hear about on the news, like the woman who wanted to bring an emotional support peacock on the plane last year. Anyone can just go to the internet, pay $50 to $75 and they'll send you a leash, a vest and a certification, just because you sent them money.
An emotional support animal might be a beloved member of your family, but a therapy dog is more than just a pet. Echo has passed obedience and off-lead classes, and even an entry-level obstacle course for police dogs. That’s what makes her so calm and confident, and why she does her job so well.
There's No Shortage of Inspiring Stories
I’ve seen Echo help people in our eating disorder therapy groups open up in ways that we would never have expected. There’s something about her that just makes people feel comfortable, and ready to make themselves vulnerable. She is a healing presence for patients, and she helps them transform the ways they live and think about their health.
But Echo has an inspiring story herself. She was rescued as a puppy and came all the way from an abandoned farm outside of Argos, Greece. Echo was brought to Illinois by a lady from Winnetka who rescued her and the other four puppies. Echo’s got a Greek passport, and her visa has stamps from Athens, Paris and Amsterdam from her journey to the United States. She’s got this Disney sort of backstory, and she’s come all this way to help so many different people.
I like to say that “God” is “Dog” spelled backwards because working in therapy groups with Echo has been a truly spiritual experience. There is the Spirit of love and compassion literally present in her. In Echo's being is the love and the accepting, non-threatening presence that patients — and everybody else — need.
Original source can be found here.
Source: Adventist La Grange Memorial Hospital