Friday, May 15, 2009

Safe Harbor

This journey began with an email six months ago. It said, in part, "I would like to expand the kind of therapy dog work we do to include women and children who are victims of domestic violence. If you would consider a therapy dog program at Safe Harbor, please let me know."

There was interest about a therapy dog program from the beginning. But our first serious discussion about a program, I was required (as are all volunteers) to take 30hours of training: Domestic Violence 101. By the end of January my volunteer training was complete.

Next, Murphy, my therapy dog, and I gave a brief presentation to all Safe Harbor staff about the difference dogs can make in people's lives using animal assisted therapy. As always, Murphy demonstrated how it works. A room changes when he walks in. People smile, maybe even laugh. They lean forward, their body language asking "when do I get to pet the big brown dog?"

The presentation went well and the next step was to sit down with the director of client services and come up with a plan. We talked through the possibilities and decided to start with a visit when group counseling for their clients is offered. Since this counseling is for adults only, children who come along usually play in the kids' room, supervised by a volunteer.

We set the date for me and Murphy to start, not knowing if any children would be there that evening.

We arrived at the community offices and were met by a volunteer, a mom and a bouncy 5-year-old. We'll call her Carolyn. Murphy was introduced all around and mom left for counseling. Carolyn and Murphy started getting acquainted. She put her hand on his back, he turned his big Lab head to look at her, and she giggled. She giggled a lot. And she talked to Murphy. For an hour and a half.

I carry a special backpack when I take Murphy to visit folks. It has lots of his favorite toys and games, extra gear, his special water bottle, and of course, treats. Carolyn pulled every single thing out of the pack. She played the muffin pan game with Murphy. She played tug. She groomed him. She played with his tail. She watered him. She gave me doggy cookies. And she walked him. I always have two leashes with me. When Carolyn reached for my leash, I asked her to wait a moment - that I had one just for her. It's a short leash, easily managed by a child. I clipped it to Murphy's collar and off we went, me on one side with the leash attached to his harness, Carolyn on the other side, leading Murphy all around the offices. She showed him every room, every chair, wastebasket, picture. And all the while, my 90-pound chocolate Lab simply wagged and followed along.

One moment in particular was a wow: Carolyn leaned over Murphy, hugged him tight, laid her head on him, and said "I love you, Murphy." AND she let him win at Chutes & Ladders.

This is new territory. We don't know how many ways we can help victims of domestic violence. We know only that we CAN help. We know that dogs have the power to heal, to give comfort, to make giggles happen.

Great job, Murphy!

If anyone out there has a connection with Build a Bear, we need your help. We need a stuffed animal that looks like Murphy - a chocolate Lab (and Dixie the GSD, Nana the Newf, etc.). Why? Because after a vist, we could send a child home with a miniature version of her therapy dog to talk to when the real deal isn't around.

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