Letting Go

A therapy dog overcomes her own fear and helps young patients gain invaluable insights.
By Marian Silverman, July 2015, Updated November 2017

Holly looked down into the swimming pool, paws extended over the edge, intently watching as her ball on a rope floated away. Head and shoulders thrust forward, she wanted desperately to retrieve it, but not at the risk of leaping into the air with an uncertain landing. The adolescents of 2 South called, “Holly, get it!” She had a strong prey drive, and would chase anything moving: a leaf, a ball, a bird, a squirrel (her favorite) or my slipper tossed across the room. She rocked precariously on the ledge as if she was about to let go and take the plunge. But then she backed up, and looked at me with that helpless stare.

It was summer now; the days were warm, and the outdoor swimming pool of the psychiatric hospital was open. Gail, the recreational therapist, invited me to conduct animal-assisted therapy sessions at the pool instead of in the hospital, and I accepted these invitations gladly. After all, Holly was more than just a therapy dog. She was a Retriever, bred to leap into ice-cold streams or lakes; mouth the bird shot out of the sky without injuring a single feather; swim to the shore and carry it to her companion, the hunter, presenting an unscathed bird. I had a water dog.

With a swimsuit underneath my slacks and a blue UCLA jacket, I came fully prepared to get wet along with Holly. Gail—whistle on a lanyard around her neck—looked like a lifeguard when she met us on the pool deck. The kids were already splashing around, some playing volleyball with a freedom of movement they didn’t show inside the walls of the hospital. The water seemed to calm and soothe them.

When I unhooked Holly’s collar with its jangling tags and untied her blue-and-gold UCLA scarf, her behavior also changed. She was no longer the calm therapy dog who worked in adolescent psychiatry. Excited, she ran joyous “victory laps” around the pool. Removing her “uniform” signaled that she was off duty, no longer a working dog. The sight and sounds of water added to her frenzy, and I had to hold onto her with both hands.

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UCLA People-Animal Connection director, K.C., always concerned about safety issues, warned that the kids couldn’t be in the water at the same time as the dog. She recalled nearly drowning when a swimming dog accidentally placed a paw on her shoulder, pulling her underwater. When I made the disappointing announcement, the kids groaned and booed. “I want to swim with Holly,” yelled Jason, a 10-year-old with attention-deficit disorder and hyperactivity, as he circled the pool in loud protest. I had to be as creative as possible to make the session work.

I asked the teenagers to wait on the steps of the pool, where each would have a turn to throw a ball attached to a rope as far as they could into the water. Holly was to swim out and retrieve it, hold it in her mouth, then swim back and return it to the thrower. Eddie tossed the first ball; the wiry 11-year-old was so nervous about being first that he dropped the rope behind him twice before he finally figured out how to swing it in the air and hurl it forward. The ball landed at the deep end of the pool. Good throw!

Holly never took her eyes off it. I released her and gave the signal, “Holly, get it!” She raced down the steps, pushed off the last one and, treading smoothly through the pool’s blue water, reached the floating ball. She mouthed the rope attached to it, and with the ball dangling, turned back toward Eddie, holding onto her prey without so much as a splash.

“Look at her feet—she swims like a duck,” he called, watching her glide through the water. Reaching the steps, she dropped the ball into his waiting hand. Everyone applauded. Eddie smiled proudly at his accomplishment. Most of the kids had never seen a Retriever’s webbed feet gliding through the water with the ease and grace of an amphibian. “She was born to swim,” I said. But not in a pool!

At the beach, Holly would race from the sand into the surf chasing her yellow tennis ball, and when her feet could no longer touch bottom, she would propel those athletic legs through the water like paddles. Undaunted by turbulent tides, she would disappear under a crashing wave and surface again, never losing track of her prize. She would reach for it with her mouth, turn and swim back to me, drop it into my hand, and then stand in the shallow water, poised for the next throw.

When she started pool retrievals, she had to learn to use the concrete steps to get out. Initially, she would swim in circles, growing tired as she searched for the non-existent shoreline. The kids would sit on the steps calling, “Holly, here,” and she soon discovered which way was out.

But the one activity that still eluded her was jumping off the ledge of the pool, a drop of several feet, into the water. Now, she stood there staring as the ball drifted away, while we all yelled in chorus, “Holly, jump!” She turned to look at me, her eyes asking for help with this dilemma.

Holly looked to me for everything she wanted. I was the keeper of her ball, toys, food and water, her walks, her comfort or discomfort, her freedom or confinement. I was responsible for her survival. If she hurt her paw, she would hold it up and look at me pathetically. It was not surprising that as the bobbing ball moved farther away from her, she stared hard at me. But this time, I did not help her. She would have to jump into the pool and retrieve it for herself. She had to face her fears just like the rest of us.

In adolescent psychiatry, fear was a powerful motivator. Angry and defiant, 12-year-old Patty usually sauntered into group sessions ready for battle, fists clenched and poised to kick anyone in her way. She would be removed within minutes of her tirade, fighting and swearing at the staff as she was taken back to her room. She was never present long enough to interact with Holly Go Lightly, the canine therapist. Typically, Patty hid away, avoiding all social contact.

But in the swimming pool, Patty took on a different demeanor. Floating on her back, isolated from the group, she appeared peaceful, without “oppositional defiance,” as her behaviors were described in clinical reports: standing when told to sit and throwing her books on the floor when asked to open one. The water was therapeutic for her. There was freedom here. She didn’t show the aggression that had landed her in a psychiatric residential setting.

Patty had been expelled from public school and labeled as having a “conduct disorder” because she fought with everyone and incited brawls on the school playground. In class and in therapy, she refused to follow rules and procedures, walking out and spewing obscenities at her teachers and therapists alike.

While Holly stood at the edge of the pool testing her confidence, I seized the opportunity to talk with the group about being afraid. They knew about fear—Patty especially. I learned that she had suffered physical abuse from the man her mother lived with. Patty’s mother, who was unable to control her behavior, described her simply as a “bad kid.” Child Protective Services finally removed her from the home and, since she was out of control, referred her for psychiatric evaluation and treatment. With nowhere to go, and little change in her behavior, she was still in residence at the hospital.

I didn’t ask them to talk about what made them afraid. My technique was always to use Holly as the facilitator, keeping the focus on the child’s relationship with the dog.

“How can we help Holly overcome her fear of jumping into the pool?” I asked. Several children spoke up. Fifteen-year-old Alan said, “Throw her in … she’ll get over it.” An older girl, Barbara, about l7, said, “No, just pet her and be kind to her, and she’ll act brave.” Unknowingly, they were talking about how they dealt with their own demons. Alan showed bravado, suppressing any doubts or anxieties he might feel; it was difficult to relate to him, so protective was his cover. Barbara was withdrawn. She needed special attention before she would engage in most activities. She did little on her own without someone to encourage her.

Patty spoke for herself.

“Well, we need to show her that it’s safe.” This was an answer made in heaven, and coming from this child, it was profound. I jumped at the chance to use it.

“How can we show her it’s safe?” I asked.

“She can watch me,” she said, and in that instant, the young girl stood next to Holly at the edge of the pool and leaped into the air as if from a diving board, coming down feet first, straight into the water, splashing everyone around her. Now she began paddling about, watching the dog’s reaction. Holly just stared.

One at a time, the other kids followed Patty’s lead, showing Holly how it was done, until the entire group of nine children had landed in the pool and were splashing and thrashing around in the water. Some of them swam back and forth in front of Holly, calling her name. The Retriever inched forward, paws hanging over the edge. Still, she hesitated.

They began calling in unison: “Holly, jump! Holly, jump!” Patty grabbed the roped ball, threw it across the pool and swam after it, modeling for Holly what she was supposed to do, while the kids continued chanting. Holly leaned over and stared straight down as if she was measuring the distance of the drop into the water. She was almost in, and they continued to coax her.

It had become a group project, and it was thrilling to see these children, usually isolated and depressed, now smiling and calling and encouraging this hesitant and fearful dog to take the risk —to let go. They were working together as a group. The therapist was speechless. She grabbed my hand and squeezed it. Not only was Patty part of the group effort, she was leading it. Socialization was the primary goal for these teenagers, and they were achieving it.

Finally, Holly could wait no longer. She let go of the safety of her concrete perch and, like a bird leaving the nest, dove into the air and hit the water with a resounding splash. She sailed after her ball as if it were alive. The kids cheered. The staff cheered. Even the pool manager cheered.

Holly captured the prey, the object of her courage, scooped it up with her mouth, and headed toward the steps of the pool, where Patty now sat waiting for her. She released the ball into Patty’s hand, following the protocol of retrieving to the thrower. In those few moments, this child had become the leader of the pack. Holly flashed her famous Golden grin as if she knew she had fulfilled her legacy. She had conquered her fear of leaping from a high ground into a body of water, a skill that all working Retrievers must have. I underlined this occasion.

“You taught her not to be afraid,” I called out to the group. Every child smiled with pride.

And then I looked at Patty, sitting on the steps, hair soaked and face glowing. Her arms were wrapped tightly around the wet dog’s neck, and she nuzzled against Holly’s head.

I said directly to her, “And you showed her how to do it—to just let go and trust the water.”

“Yes,” she smiled, “I showed her it was safe.” Patty turned and kissed the top of Holly’s head, right on what I always called her “smart bump.” The kids splashed their way over to the pair and proceeded to pet and hug the dog, telling her how brave she had been. There was lots of chatter and laughter and celebration. We would all remember this day.

The kids from 2 South had become empowered by the simple act of bravery by an animal, paired with the cooperative effort of the group. The water was a metaphor for facing their fears. In helping Holly let go and jump, perhaps they would find their own courage.

After that day, the therapy dog was willing to jump into the pool without all of the hullabaloo. Just the throw of her beloved tennis ball and the words, “Holly, jump!” and she would leap into the water with confidence.

Patty left her room to come to all of our therapy sessions in the hospital or at the pool, to check on Holly. She needed to make sure that Holly was no longer nervous or afraid.