All it takes is a touch. I can feel it when I place my hand on Libby, my son’s golden retriever. It is a sense of calm and wellbeing that defies rational explanation. I can’t say why I feel it or from whence it comes. It is as though I am in therapy. But make no mistake. Libby is no therapy dog. She is a rambunctious one-year-old that still chases her tail on occasion. The real therapy dogs are in courtrooms comforting distraught, abused children or in rehab centers helping patients in their healing process. They are dogs like Rikki, a small, reddish-colored golden retriever.
I met Rikki about a decade ago at the rehabilitation clinic of the Tallahassee Memorial Hospital (TMH). I was visiting my mother after her knee replacement and Rikki was making her rounds, meeting patients and bringing encouragement to people who were struggling to get their lives back. Rikki’s story has been told by Julie Strauss Bettinger in her 2016 book, Encounters with Rikki.
Rikki, it was said, could read a person’s body language from a young age. She engaged visually with people by making eye contact, and she would bow her head and tentatively reach out to certain people. She even offered herself to a woman with Parkinson’s disease in spite of the woman’s uncontrollable tremors. By nine months of age, she and her owner, Chuck Mitchell, were enrolled in an animal therapy training program.
Training a therapy dog involves teaching the dog and handler to interact safely and reliably with the elderly, with young children and with the physically impaired. Dogs learn not to be afraid of elevators, medical equipment, and noisy environments. Trained therapy dogs and their owners volunteer in settings such as schools, hospitals, and nursing homes. One of Rikki’s first assignments was as a courthouse therapy dog where she worked with a six-year-old girl who had been sexually abused. Since abused children must tell their painful stories in a courtroom in order for the abuser to be convicted, the frightened little girl learned she could tell her story to the dog—a non-threatening listener she had come to trust.
Therapy dogs are distinct from service dogs. Service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks to help a person with a disability. A service dog might guide an owner who is blind or assist someone who has physical limitations. And while Therapy dogs are there to be touched and petted, service dogs are not. Service dogs should not be approached without the owner’s permission.
Service dogs must remain with their person at all times and are the only animals that have special access privileges in public places such as on airplanes and in restaurants. Therapy dogs, even the dogs who have earned the American Kennel Club Therapy Dog title, do not have that same special access, nor do the third classification of support dogs—those that offer emotional support to their owners.
Although all dogs have an emotional connection with their owner, the AKC suggests that to legally be considered an emotional support dog, the pet (which apparently can be almost any type of animal) needs to be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional to a person with a disabling mental illness. I am a dog-person myself, but emotional support animals come in all shapes and sizes. Cats and horses are probably a close second to dogs and I have been known to hug my mules when I am brushing them down before a day of pulling the wagon. My sister-in-law, Sheree Porter, manages the rehab program at TMH. She was a pioneer in their use of therapy dogs like Rikki and she has gone on to harness the therapeutic powers of birds, horses, and a donkey named Daisey Mae.
But, the days of bringing your emotional support animal on an airplane came to an end in December of 2020 when the federal government enacted a new rule restricting the types of service animals allowed on commercial airline flights. Now, airlines only allow dogs that meet specific training criteria. The new Department of Transportation rule, according to a report on National Public Radio, was in response to a growing backlash in recent years to airline passengers trying to bring all kinds of wild and outlandish animals onto airplanes, including the woman who tried to bring an “emotional support” peacock on board a United Airlines flight in 2018, and the “comfort” turkey that was actually allowed to fly on Delta Airlines back in 2016.
Studies show that interaction with a dog can lower a person’s heart rate and cause blood pressure to go down. Petting Libby, I have come to learn, stimulates my production of oxytocin—a hormone that is associated with empathy, trust, and relationship-building. It also releases endorphins which are chemicals produced by the body to relieve stress and pain.
The nature of the dog-human bond is exceptional. It is similar to the classic “pair bond” which is usually between two mated individuals—like my wife and me. She and I enjoy hanging out together. We obey each other (for the most part), we care for each other when necessary. and we greet each other enthusiastically when we reunite. Touch is how we like to connect. We share an innate drive for contact, with a bond that both pleasurable and hormonal. I hope my wife doesn’t find out that all of this could also describe my relationship with my dog.