Several years ago I discovered something powerful about the dogs who share many of our lives. While all dogs provide love, comfort, joy, and support, for some people, dogs actually have the ability to transform lives. Although I have been in clinical practice as a therapist for years, this isn’t something I learned through professional training. The catalyst was a tiny furball named Umaya who came home with me on Christmas Eve. Here's how our journey began.
After a dozen years of working and attending graduate school, I finally moved into my own house in October 1992, and my first priority was to get a dog; furniture could wait. As a child of divorce, I recalled that the most memorable, life-altering gift my father ever gave us was a Black Labrador Retriever pup we named Tasha.
As I grew up, she was my best friend and confidante, especially while going through the trials and tribulations of adolescence. Tasha taught me how extraordinary the bond between a human and animal can be and I always knew that once I had a home of my own I wanted to find another Tasha. However, I also knew if I adopted another Black Lab, she might remind me too much of Tasha’s absence, and eventually I fell in love with a breed with a similar disposition, the beautiful dark Golden Retrievers.
The Dogs Gave Me Back My Life
When I started to look for my new dog, I discovered a breeder of Goldens less than five miles away from my home. At our first meeting, I was greeted by a boy aged about 17 years who lived with his family on the farm where they raised the dogs. As a child, he had suffered a serious accident when the combine he was riding went up in flames, and although he had survived, he still bore the scars of his accident despite numerous plastic surgeries and skin grafts. As we walked out into the yard to meet the dogs, he told me how he started breeding dark Golden Retrievers after the accident and he credited the dogs for giving him back his life. The dogs completely accepted him for who he was, not what he looked like. I was so touched by his story, and seeing how deeply the dogs loved him, I knew I’d find my pup here. The next litter was due Oct. 30. I could hardly wait.
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When the day finally came for me to meet the litter, the first pup I picked up curled happily into my lap. But after a few moments she got frisky and when I put her down she immediately peed. I knew at that moment she was the one because she wouldn’t pee on me! We painted her toenails purple so we would know she was mine and I named her Umaya, which means stability. Then, a few weeks after Umaya entered my life, I received her AKC papers to discover that her dam’s name was Tasha!
Me & My Dog: Every Day Is A Gift
I brought my darling pup home on Christmas Eve, and once I let her out of my arms, Umaya scampered about the house, sniffing here and there with her mouth full of toys, investigating everything but with her eyes glued always on me. She slept with me from the first day, cuddled with me, and taught me how to play. From the start it seemed as though we communicated even without words — she seemed to know what I was thinking and feeling — and my friends remarked that she seemed to embody one of my favorite sayings: “Every day is a gift.”
Looking at that lively puppy, I could not have foreseen where this relationship would take us during the next 12 years, nor the enormous impact she would have on my work. Who could have guessed that she would not only change my life but that of my clients as well?
Dog Begins to Attend Therapy Sessions
She began to attend therapy sessions, lying in a corner of the room while the clients talked. She became a mirror image of my clients’ feelings, helping them become more in tune with their own emotions. If they were sad, she’d walk over to them and look pouty; if they were angry she’d chew her rubber bones voraciously, or she’d bring her toy over in an attempt to diffuse their anger.
Frequently, clients would begin petting Umaya, start talking, and not even realize that they were sharing painful memories, releasing old hurts, and freeing their spirits. Umaya wordlessly provided support and a sense of calm. As I saw clients experiencing Umaya’s presence in such a profound way, I began to consider how powerful it would be for some of them to have a dog of their own.
Service Dogs and Therapy Dogs
In our fast-paced world, doctors are often quick to advise patients suffering from traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, and other emotional and psychological problems that their ills can be solved through the use of one medication or another. Too many people think the pill itself is a “magic bullet” that will make their lives happier, easier, and more secure. It isn’t. Medications must be taken under careful supervision, and many anti-depressant drugs carry the risk of negative side effects, including in extreme cases suicidal tendencies. While many individuals do require medication, which has helped countless people, there are other pill-free choices that are extremely beneficial and may not have been considered.
Service Dogs have been assisting the blind, the hearing-impaired, and those in wheelchairs and with other disabilities for a long time. There are also Therapy Dogs who help enhance quality of life for many people by visiting hospitals, nursing homes, and other institutions providing comfort and support. Umaya’s strength and calming influence were a revelation to me, and when I saw the way that my clients responded to her, I began to realize that having a dog could have a profound impact on some of my clients’ lives.
This article was excerpted with permission from the book:
Healing Companions: Ordinary Dogs and Their Extraordinary Power to Transform Lives
by Jane Miller.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, New Page Books a division of Career Press, Pompton Plains, NJ. 800-227-3371. All rights reserved. ©2010. http://newpagebooks.com/
About the Author
Jane Miller, LISW, CDBC, works in private practice as a clinical psychotherapist and licensed independent social worker, with a particular interest in holistic healing. She has lectured in a wide variety of settings, including many national and local organizations, schools, and dog-training facilities. More recently, Jane has consulted with NEADS (National Education for Assistance Dog Services), the Canines for Combat Veterans program for soldiers returning from combat in Iraq with post-traumatic stress, as well as other veterans organizations. She has appeared in the PBS program "Health Visions: Animals As Healers" and other local and national media. Visit her website at www.healing-companions.com