Therapy Dog Stories

The Healing Power of Love

An eight year old child presented with his mom in my office due to parental divorce. The child (we’ll call him Stevie) was an extremely anxious and depressed child who clearly exhibited developmental delays. His mother reported that he is in special education classes and has learning disabilities. He has speech problems and has always been made fun of in school. He is a well behaved child who always tries to “see the bright side of things.” However, when I first began to see Stevie, it was clear he was depressed and hurt by his father’s absence in his life. He began his first session with Jenga, my youngest and only female therapy dog. I explained play therapy and the dog to him in the way I always do. However, before I made introductions beyond the “Cozy Corner” (this is an area dedicated to child-animal interaction where there are the dog’s toys and a large pillow for the two of them to sit on), the child sat down on the pillow, called Jenga over and began to tell her how sad he was that he does not get to see his dad very often. He talked about how he used to play football and go fishing with his dad when his parents were married but now his dad never comes around. The entire session was of Stevie telling Jenga of the loss of his father’s attention. Every session after that one was much of the same. Stevie would come in and tell Jenga something new going on in his life and then they would end the session with a play activity of Stevie’s choice. Sometimes it was fetch, a game of Feelings Jenga (in honor of his favorite pup), tug, or tag. He told Jenga how his father drank all the time and was often mean to his mom, how his dad never has time for him, and about his dad’s occasional phone calls.

After several of these sessions I received a phone call from Stevie’s mom requesting an emergency session. Stevie’s father called him on the phone and told him directly he was terminating his rights as his father and that he would never see him again. To say the least Stevie was devastated. He told his mom he needed to see Jenga and Ms. Mary right then as he needed to tell us the news. Once I received the call, I had Jenga brought from home as my other therapy dog, Razz was working that day. As soon as Stevie came in he went straight to the Cozy Corner, curled up on the pillow with Jenga and told her about his phone call with his dad. It started like this, “Jenga I have something really, really bad to tell you. I mean it is the worse thing that could ever happen to me. My dad (as he is sobbing and crying) said he never wants to see me again Jenga. I don’t know why or what I did. My mom said it is not my fault and my dad is sick but I just wish he would tell me why he does not want to see me anymore.” As Stevie tells his story to Jenga she is licking his hand and the tears as they drop. I was fighting back tears as I witnessed such a powerful event. I spoke to Stevie’s mom after the session and she said she could not believe what a difference that one session had made for him.

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After that pivotal session the bond between Jenga and Stevie continued to grow. At one session, Stevie brought in a football he bought with his own allowance to try to get his dad to come over and play with him. He said, “Jenga I thought I bought this football for nothing but now you and I can have fun with it.” The two of them had so much fun playing fetch with the football. Jenga tried her best to get her mouth around it and each time it was retrieved she received a smile and laugh from Stevie.

In each session I have had with this child Jenga has been a critical part. I continue to see Stevie and with the help of Jenga he has accepted his dad’s absence, continued to do well academically, and according to his mom has really learned coping skills. In fact his father had the nerve to call him recently just to tell him he was moving out of the state. Stevie immediately got on the phone and told his dad, “Jenga and I decided we don’t want to talk with you anymore. My mom really loves me and that’s all the matters so I am hanging up the phone now.” Stevie’s mother told me that his dad was left asking her who Jenga was. Her response was, “Stevie’s guardian angel.”

I like to think of this story and remember how powerful dogs and children can be together.

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