Chuck Mitchell sold his business interests to focus on community work and animal therapy. A registered Delta Team evaluator, he lives near Tallahassee, Fla., with his wife, four rescue dogs and a cat.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Therapy dog unlocks a door into a patient’s mind
September 20 2011
Rikki is a female golden retriever rescued from the f loodwaters outside New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Together, she and I are one of the animal-therapy teams affiliated with Companions for Therapy, a Tallahassee, Fla.-based organization that provides animal- therapy services to retirement homes, hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, hospice, child dependency and criminal courts, and schools.
We were introduced to the man I’ll call “Arnold” during a regular visit to the geriatric schizophrenic ward of one of the psychiatric hospitals we visit. As I always do, I began by asking the clients if they would like to meet my dog. Arnold, deaf and mute, sat with a vacant gaze, flanked by his interpreter and his therapist. He waved us off as quickly as his interpreter signed my greeting, and we moved on to the next person. After a few minutes of positive interactions with four other residents, we moved back to see if Arnold might have changed his mind. He hadn’t, and again dismissively waved us off.
After making the rounds of the room again, Rikki pulled me over to Arnold for a third time, but even as we approached him, his complete lack of interest was plain. I quietly told Rikki that we should leave him alone and concentrate on others who were enjoying her company.
When Rikki pulled me toward him a fourth time, I led her over to the interpreter and said, “Forgive me, but my dog really seems to think that your client would like to meet her. Would you mind asking him just one more time?” I’ve worked with my partner long enough to know that she knows much more than I do about who really needs her, and why.
As the interpreter signed our request, Rikki lay down at Arnold’s feet and looked straight up into his eyes. Arnold’s arm began flailing around as though he was about to have a seizure. I knelt down beside Rikki and slipped my finger inside her collar, just in case I needed to pull her back. I expected her to tense up, but instead, her muscles relaxed and her mouth opened in an expectant smile.
As I watched, a kaleidoscope of expressions crossed Arnold’s face; then for a moment, his eyes rolled far back in his head. Suddenly, he burst into a huge smile and his eyes focused on Rikki as though he’d never seen her before. He leaned over and threw his arms around her neck, moaning as he buried his head in her fur. Instead of stiffening up, Rikki relaxed and leaned forward into him, bringing herself even closer. Arnold began softly weeping and rocking back and forth. Time seemed to stop.
Then, just as quickly as he had begun, Arnold released Rikki, sat upright and looked straight ahead with a vacant stare, ignoring us. I had no idea what had happened, but Rikki seemed to know that our visit was over, and we thanked everyone and left the room.
Arnold’s therapist followed us out into the hall, where he told me that Arnold suffered from multiple personality disorder; the therapist had identified nine distinct personalities over the 12 years he had been treating him. He told me that Arnold’s dominant personality, which was aloof and antisocial, controlled the others and precluded them from emerging except occasionally, and then only for a short time.
He and the other therapists had worked to encourage one of Arnold’s other, more sociable personalities to emerge long enough for them to make contact. “Your dog did in a few minutes what I haven’t been able to do in 12 years. She connected with one of his personalities who wanted to deal with the outside world in a positive manner,” he said.
He admitted that he’d heard of animal therapy but had never really believed it would be of any benefit to his practice. Now, he didn’t know what to think. I didn’t, either. I couldn’t even imagine how difficult it must be to treat a person with Arnold’s disorder, which kept him in solitary confinement in his own body. The therapist asked if we could return the following week and focus strictly on Arnold, and I readily agreed.
When we arrived, we saw several people gathered around Arnold, who was sitting in his chair. I suddenly realized that this was going to be a bigger deal than I’d imagined. This time, there were other therapists and physicians in attendance, including the hospital’s chief medical director. My stomach went into a knot as I realized that we were there to prove ourselves to a “show me” crowd. I tried not to telegraph my nervousness to Rikki, but she seemed more than eager to meet everyone and charm them into petting her. Luckily, my therapy dog calmed me down.
Would this work? Since I had no idea how it happened the first time, what reason did I have to think that Rikki would be able to connect with Arnold again? Her demeanor was so focused and positive, however, that I began to relax. I remembered that my confidence in her had been proven through hundreds of other interactions. She would do what needed to be done.
As during our previous visit, Arnold was not interested at first. We spent an hour with him, and during that time, Rikki stayed focused and within petting distance. It didn’t take long for “Earl” (the name given to the personality who wanted to pet Rikki) to emerge, though his arrival wasn’t as physically dramatic as it had been in our first encounter.
As the visit continued, we “saw” six distinct personalities, including one who did not want to pet Rikki but was content to watch me pet her and ask questions about her through his interpreter. This in itself stunned the therapists, as Arnold had apparently never before taken note of a visitor, much less asked questions.
When one of Arnold’s personalities was petting or treating Rikki (he began taking baby carrots from me and giving them to her, even letting me show him how to have her sit and shake hands) and another personality who did not want the dog around began to overtake his persona, he would literally wave his arm in the air, as though shooing away a giant bug. I hardly knew what to do, other than to keep Rikki close and make sure he could touch her when he needed to. She seemed to know what to do — when to move in, when to engage with him, when to leave him alone.
I’ll always remember the moments she extended her head and smiled as he gently stroked her ears and made quiet sounds of contentment. As I looked around at the faces of the others, I realized that I wasn’t the only one who sensed just how special those moments were.
Arnold eventually relaxed enough while petting Rikki that the therapists were able to have brief interludes of conversation with him through his interpreter. I don’t know which was more fascinating: watching the interaction between Arnold and Rikki and Arnold and the therapists, or listening to the sidebar conversations between the therapists.
When we left, Arnold and the therapists walked us to our car, and every one of them — including Arnold, through his interpreter — thanked me for bringing her. I could barely reply. I could only thank them for giving my special dog and me a chance to help.
On the drive home, I looked in the rearview mirror and saw that Rikki had fallen into a deep sleep.
The next time we saw Arnold, he had a notepad and was communicating with his therapist by written word as well as through his interpreter. I thought for sure he would recognize us as we walked by, but his focus stayed on his therapist. And I just knew that Rikki would be drawn to him as she was before, since their previous connections had been so profound.
But neither of them was particularly interested in the other, and after my confusion (and, frankly, disappointment) had subsided, it finally dawned on me: he didn’t need her anymore, and she knew it. He had desperately needed some way to get around his dominant, isolated personality, someone who could provide a key to unlock the door between the “real” Arnold and the rest of us. Rikki sensed that, and knew how to be the key. Once the door was unlocked, the professionals were able to begin connecting with Arnold and treating him in more conventional ways.
So often, our animals provide exactly the right link or motivation, one that can’t otherwise be made with someone in physical or emotional pain or distress. I see it all the time, in so many of our therapy visits. Rikki is a special dog, but she’s not unique.
The Aborigines have a saying: “Dogs make us human.” I couldn’t agree more.
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