Hamlet rolls onto his back, legs up and eyes half-closed. Girls ranging in age 13-18 surround him on the floor. They giggle and murmur things to him, that he’s a good boy, and run their fingers through his thick fur. He doesn’t mind. It’s his job. His bushy tail wags in happiness and he’s cool and harmonious. A young girl rests her head on his back and closes her eyes.
“This is the best,” she whispers. “I’m so calm right now.”
This is exactly what Hamlet’s job is — to offer calm in what might seem like a torrid storm in the mind of these young people. Hamlet is a therapy dog certified and working for Happy Tails Pet Therapy in Atlanta. He’s a nine and a half-year-old, golden retriever/Great Pyrenees who loves belly rubs, treats, and stuffed toys. On this day he is his lovable self to the young in-patients at Peachford Hospital in Dunwoody, Georgia.
Peachford treats emotional, behavioral, and chemical dependency problems. The girls are in the Adolescent Treatment Program. Part of the program for adolescents teaches self-esteem. They help the kids set goals in hopes that they won’t turn to drugs or alcohol for help once back in the outside world. Therapy dogs are part of the hospitals’ therapeutic components. A group of five to six dogs (and sometimes with a cat) come every weekend. The dogs visit the hospital with the patients there. The groups in the adolescent area divide in age from four to 12 and 13 up. On other days the dogs visit adults who may be suffering from depression or drug addiction. They also visit with seniors, some of who suffer memory issues or depression.
Training a Therapy Dog
Hamlet is my dog. I’m his fourth owner but have had him since he was four months old. Through our years together I saw in him a love for humans and how he made people feel. I knew about therapy dog work and wondered if Hamlet could do such a job. We spent years in training. He was beyond hyper as a puppy and it took years before he learned not to jump on people.
To become a therapy dog requires obedience training. The dog should know the basic commands sit, stay, down and come when called. Other commands such as “drop it,” “take it” and “leave it” are also important. For instance, if the dog is visiting children in a hospital by command they will leave the child’s toys alone. Once the dog has these commands under paw they take a test with their handler. The test assesses obedience, level of sociability, and temperament. A tester might make lots of noise or walk around the dog with a walker. Other testers will crowd around the dog to pet it or groom it. The dog needs to prove that it can be gentle and serene in these situations. The handler is also tested by showing that they have full control of the dog.
I was very nervous when we took the test because Hamlet’s Pyrenees side can be rather stubborn. We zoomed through the obedience test but then he saw another dog nearby and he wanted to play. He barked a couple of times, which is a no-no during testing. I was able to calm him down but thought we had blown it at that time. Instead, he zoomed through everything else and that gave him his chance. He has now been working as a therapy dog for a year and has proven his ability to make an impact. Note though that training never ends and we are still working on “drop it” and “leave it.”
Benefits of Therapy Animal Work
The benefits are noticeable. One time we visited an Alzheimer’s ward at a hospital in Snellville. One patient, while patting Hamlet on the head in a gentle manner, began to tell me about a dog she once owned. Hamlet sat still next to her legs, leaning against her. His purpose there helped her remember something from her past.
A Georgia State University student greets Hamlet during a “test de-stress” visit with therapy dogs.
On another time, Hamlet visited a Georgia State University residence hall before finals. While there, a young man came up and hugged Hamlet and muttered how stressed he had been. But now, with the dogs there, not so much. He said he was so happy to see the dogs. He was away from home for the first time and was missing his dog.
During a visit with Friendship Circle Special Needs kids, a young autistic girl hugged Hamlet.
“I love you,” she said to him while her mother looked on in amazement. She told me her child rarely speaks, but will talk to therapy dogs. Another child with mobility issues took Hamlet’s leash (I held it, too) and led him around in a circle. Hamlet always seems nonplussed during these times. It’s his job and he knows it (and I tell him, “good job!”) when he allows people to snuggle with him, rub his tummy, brush him or hug him.
During our visits to Peachford with the kids many times I’ve heard them say they how much they love the dogs. They proclaim how happy seeing the dogs makes them feel and how it’s the best part of their therapy. When you hear a young person tell you the dog is the only thing that loves them, it’s heartbreaking.
Peachford understands the possibilities for healing that therapy animals offer.
“Bringing a friendly pet into a group of people helps everyone connect through playing with it together. Noticing this dynamic, the mental health professionals at Peachford and other facilities have been intentionally adding various animals as therapy helpers to their treatment tools for a wide range of patients,” states an article on their website.
Studies show therapy animals help in the following ways:
- reduce stress (cortisol levels) and anxiety
- lower blood pressure
- increase learning motivation
- increase physical activity
- help with the expression of emotion
- boost attachment responses
- trigger oxytocin nicknamed the “love” or “cuddle” hormone
- release serotonin and prolactin, mood-elevating hormones
- provide comfort
- reduce loneliness
- assist in memory recall
- help with literacy and reading development (Reading Paws…)
- offer a happy distraction from treatment or a stressful day
At the end of the day…
And of course, Hamlet is my therapy dog, too. My stress dissipates when he greets me at the door with his big, bushy tail wagging like a helicopter blade. He’s got the best job ever.
This story originally ran on the College of Education & Human Development’s H.O.P.E. Lab blog under “Hamlet the Therapy Dog and H.O.P.E.,” Sept. 2019. Sadly, Hamlet passed in Oct. 2020 and is sorely missed. In Feb. 2021, I became a foster fail and adopted a great Pyrenees mix similar in temperament to Hamlet who will someday make a wonderful therapy pet.