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.