Therapy Dog Offers Comfort to Both Patients and Owner

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by Lorraine Bossé-Smith as told by Opal Shafer

“Why does Mandy have such a short tail?” asked one of the children in the hospital. “Uh, oh, well…” Opal Shafer was at a loss — how do you tell a sick little four-year-old girl that English Springer Spaniels have their tails docked at birth? Thankfully, a fellow volunteer offered up, “Mandy is a working dog, and working dogs don’t have long tails.”

Opal never knows what to expect when she enters the hospital with her dog , but one thing is certain: she will be blessed.

Opie was married to Dallas Shafer, a pastor, counselor and professor, for 56 years until he passed away in 2008. Opie and Dallas were sweethearts from a very young age, growing up in eastern Colorado. The loss of her husband and best friend was almost more than Opie could stand, but she had Mandy, their special dog.

Nine years ago, Dallas surprised Opie for Christmas with a five-month-old English Springer Spaniel, who quickly became the love of their lives. When Dallas became ill, they discussed the possibility of training Mandy to become a therapy dog. Opie enjoyed working with children, so this seemed like a logical choice. Opie cared for Dallas through his last 18 months of life with Mandy by her side.

Opie pursued training Mandy as a way to create a “new normal” life. She knew she needed to find something that would give meaning and purpose to her long days and nights.

Opie contacted Therapy Dogs, Inc. She discovered that the 4 to 6 month pet therapy training program included an eight-hour orientation meeting, 16 hours of hospice experience and 60 hours or more of additional training. At first, Opie felt she was receiving more training than Mandy, but the day finally arrived when Mandy trained with her. The trainer completely ignored Opie and went straight to Mandy. Opie remembers thinking, “Gee, what am I, chopped liver?” At the end of the session, the trainer told Opie why she had ignored her. “If I had interacted with you when you came through the door,” the trainer said, “Mandy would have known we had a connection, and I needed to see how she responded to complete strangers.” Mandy’s temperament was observed in a variety of situations, such as having her short tail pulled, but she passed the tests with flying colors. After eight months of hands-on, — or should we say “paws-on” training — Mandy received her certified therapy dog status.

Opie and Mandy now volunteer two days a week and usually visit children. Opie chooses not to learn why the children are in the hospital but rather just asks, “Would you like a pet visit?” And that’s when the God encounters begin.

“Some kids just hug Mandy and cry because they miss their own dogs,” Opie shares. “Mandy just sits and loves on them.” Mandy has motivated more than one weak and fragile kid to get out of bed and walk with her. One day, a little boy needed a rest break, so they sat on a bench by a window where they could see helicopters land. As soon as they sat down, a helicopter accommodatingly flew in and landed. The boy’s father was in tears. “My son just loves helicopters.”

The Pet Therapy program is designed to reduce a patient’s stress and anxiety as well as increase interaction and communication. Dogs like Mandy offer an experience of unconditional love, acceptance, friendship and affection for patients and their families. Opie is always amazed at how the kids respond. One patient, a young man, shared that he was a father of a newborn baby and talked for quite some time about his love of his new child. With a deep breath and a quick prayer, Opie assured the fellow, “You are going to be a great dad.” His spirit was lifted, and so was Opie’s. She could feel the presence of her husband and all the wisdom he gained through his years of ministry.

Dallas’s ministry lives on through Opie and Mandy and also in the lives he touched. During one visit, Opie noticed a woman reading the book Iron John. She commented on the book and asked the woman what she thought about it. “You know this book?” the woman asked. “Why yes, my husband referred to that book often through his counseling and courses he instructed on psychology.” The woman quickly perked up, “You don’t happen to be talking about Dallas Shafer?” Such a small world, yet what a big difference one man made. Apparently, Dallas gave her advice that forever changed the course of her life. Once left alone with four children, this woman went on to obtain her RN and her Ph.D. Opie told her that after Dallas passed away she became inspired to embark on the pet therapy path, which had been a very big step for her.

On any given day, Opie and Mandy see children and adults of all ages at the hospital and emergency room. One man was quite sad and lonely until he saw Mandy. He had two English Springer Spaniels who used to cuddle with him in bed. He asked if Mandy could join him, and Mandy jumped right into bed with the teary-eyed man and snuggled in. “Every visit is a blessing to me,” says Opie. Mandy plays, wiggles, talks… yes, talks… and offers just a moment of “normal life” for individuals who are scared, sick and uncertain of their tomorrows. But just for today, just for that moment, they can be kids or experience a smile or laugh. “I believe this is right where I belong,” Opie shares, “and I feel like I am continuing my husband’s ministry. That would make him proud.”

One day, Opie and Mandy were checking in at the Pediatric Department when a very nice lady starting petting Mandy. “You are just what I need now,” she told Mandy with a soft but strained smile. She stroked Mandy with such love and affection and then finally asked if Opie and Mandy would visit her son in the pediatric ICU. Her son had attempted suicide and now would not respond to anyone. “Of course we can visit your son,” Opie replied.

The mother went to the room and asked her son if he would like a four-legged visitor. He turned to look and when he saw Mandy, an enormous smile came upon his face. “Can Mandy get in bed with me?” the boy asked. Mandy jumped up into the bed, curling up next to him. The boy and the dog connected affectionately.

Mandy always seems to know when to make kids laugh and when to just “be” with them. “She continually amazes me as do the little miracles that occur each and every time we visit,” Opie shared.

Even though Opie doesn’t ask why the patients are in the hospital, they sometimes tell her their stories. At the embarrassment of one dad, a little boy related how their horse was spooked and threw both of them off the horse. The problem was that his dad fell on top of him! Everyone got a good laugh, and that is truly what the doctor ordered.

“We never leave without a thank you from the patients and their families,” Opie says. “We go there to serve, support and encourage, but we are the ones always blessed.” During the training, all volunteers were given a guideline for their visits, and this remains near and dear to Opie’s heart and summarizes her feelings about pet therapy:

“Our first task in approaching another people, another culture, another religion is to take off our shoes for the place we are approaching is holy. Else we may find ourselves treading on another’s dream. More serious still, we may forget that God was there before our arrival.”

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Lorraine Bossé-Smith is the author of seven published books, a speaker, coach and personal trainer. She desires to improve the quality of your life! Visit her website for many more articles and resources to your entire life: www.thetotalyou.biz