A Little Furry Real Estate: Pairing Therapy Dogs with Suicide Loss Survivors

International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day is November 18th, 2017. To find a Survivor Day event near you, click here.

My life changed forever in the moment I got the call letting me know I had lost my 16-year-old niece to suicide: faster than it took for me to catch my breath or for my heart to thump its next beat. As time went on I gradually began to process my loss, eventually forming Hayley’s Hope Foundation with my family, dedicated to youth suicide prevention, education, and support. I also got involved with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and began helping to organize my local chapter’s annual Survivor Day event. (International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day is the one day a year when people affected by suicide loss gather around the world at events in their local communities to find comfort and gain understanding as they share stories of healing and hope.)

Each year, I try to mold our programming and workshops around the most pressing needs of my attendees. I am proud and delighted to say that my chapter’s Survivor Day event in Danvers, Massachusetts, has had one unique constant that began the first year I took over: the use of therapy dogs.

Let me start by saying that I am – perhaps ironically – terrified of dogs.

Anyone who has coordinated a Survivor Day event knows it’s sometimes hard to draw an individual who has suffered a suicide loss into the conversation. They may feel shy or just not ready to share. The grief associated with losing someone to suicide is unlike any other, and often takes longer to process. There will always be more questions than answers; furthermore, our culture seems to demand we eventually quell the tears. It’s hard to know how best to encourage those who may be reticent to open up to share their emotions, and thus begin to heal.

It’s well-documented that animal therapy programs are beneficial in many stressful situations. They are commonplace in hospitals, nursing homes and college campuses, and used for PTSD patients. Dogs seem to have a special “sixth sense” for detecting humans’ moods and emotions. They are non-judgmental; will listen to the same story a hundred times over without batting an eye; will allow the tears to flow; or let the person just sit in silence.

My involvement with therapy dogs happened quite coincidentally. As I was preparing to organize my first Survivor Day, a friend of mine asked what I was up to, and over the course of conversation, mentioned she was a certified pet therapist who worked with an organization called Dog B.O.N.E.S. Therapy Dogs of MA. I have to admit I hesitated – like I said, dogs scared me – but I am so glad I said yes to her offer to bring these wonderful furry friends to our Survivor Day event. Since that first event in 2012, Fran and her Westie, Paxton – along with another good friend, Bill, and his Husky, Lucky – have joined us every year. Last Survivor Day, two more teams of therapy dogs joined us as well.

Each year, it amazes me: as these calm, patient, loving dogs sit down with a loss survivor, the majority of Survivor Day participants start to feel a little more confident, a little safer. They start to open up…which is a wonderful step in one’s healing process. I genuinely believe it’s largely due to the presence of these therapy dogs.

Time and time again, I have watched Paxton and Lucky walk across the room to the exact person who needs them at that very moment. No words are spoken; no nudging from their owners, no outward show of emotion or obvious body language from my guest. Yet as soon as the dog approaches the individual, both animal and human know that the interaction is right: there might be a tear-filled embrace, simply some snuggling or mindless patting…or even no contact at all, just the dog sitting at the Survivor Day participant’s feet. The dog will remain there until they feel the human is comforted and safe, and then they move on. Maybe I’m just imagining things, but at times, it seems you can actually see the pride in these dogs’ faces!

Bill once told me that Lucky, a rescue dog, behaves like a “normal” dog most of the time; but once his red vest is on, he knows it’s time to go to “work.” From that moment on, Lucky is all business and gives 100 percent of himself, asking for very little in return.

As Fran once put it about her own dog, “Paxton just seems to know which of the suicide loss survivors need a little furry real estate to rub during this special day of community, healing and love.”

Loss survivors naturally seem to realize that there is no judgment coming from Paxton and Lucky: as these furry emissaries sit being petted, they will quietly listen as we ask, “Why?” about our loss, even if it’s for the thousandth time…as we remember with joy the good times…and then, on some occasions, release a positive, healing cry.

I would encourage anyone coordinating an International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day event to consider bringing in some therapy dogs for their attendees, if the site they are holding the event at will allow it. If not, it might be possible to bring in a guest speaker to discuss the benefits of pet therapy, or simply provide information for attendees about pet therapy resources in their community.

One thing I do know is that my niece Hayley would have loved what we are doing with the therapy dogs; she was an animal person to the core! My life changed when I lost her, just as it changes whenever I meet another survivor who shares their story.

My life has also changed with a recent addition to my family: an adorable 6-lb Yorkshire terrier named Bella. After witnessing the amazing work Paxton and Lucky do, I have developed a whole new appreciation of the unwavering love and trust between human and dog.

Not all Survivor Day events have therapy dogs. For more information, and to find a Survivor Day event near you, click here.


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