All of Us

The Amazing World of Therapy Dogs

by Mike Critelli

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview an exceptionally inspiring high school classmate of mine, Sister Mary Foley, for a newsletter that our Pioneer Class Committee publishes. As a member of the first graduating class of Bishop Kearney High School in Rochester, NY, in 1966, we proudly referred to ourselves as the "pioneer class." Coincidentally, the co-principals of our school had the surnames "Lewis," (Sister Mary Lewis), and "Clark," (Brother Joseph Clark,) which only reinforced the appropriateness of the "pioneer" metaphor.

Sister Mary Foley's career has been nothing short of outstanding. She has been a teacher, missionary, community leader, and licensed clinical social service worker, both in the US and abroad, with a three-year stint in Liberia. However, the part of her life that most deeply intrigued me was her transformation of Luke, a border collie entrusted to her care at the Academy of the Holy Angels in Demarest, NJ, in 2004. Initially, Luke was acquired to help nuns living on the campus discourage and deter geese from doing too much property damage. But Sister Mary Foley, who was passionate about helping individuals and populations who had undergone traumas, had Luke trained as a disaster stress relief dog through Therapy Dogs International.

Together, Sister Mary Foley and Luke made 17 trips to administer therapy to the survivors of the Sandy Hook, CT mass school shooting. They also went to Tuscaloosa, AL, to minister to tornado victims, and to Boston, MA, to support the victims and survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing. Luke even helped children overcome their anxieties in learning to read at libraries. Sadly, Luke passed away in 2017 and Sister Mary Foley's current dog Zac has not demonstrated the same potential for therapy dog deployment. She has even published a memoir about her life with Luke, titled Luke, The Border Collie: My Early Years.

Before this conversation, my understanding of the role of pets in therapeutic environments, like that of many who have not owned pets since childhood, has been limited. I understand the critical role guide dogs play for those with sight impairments and the role of certain dogs in search and rescue operations. More recently, I even discovered that trained dogs, with their superior sense of smell, are able to do early detection of cancers or even the presence of the Covid virus in people.

But through this and many other conversations, I have come to understand the powerful role pets, particularly trained dogs, can play in therapy, some of which is directly responsive to the mental health issues Covid has created. Covid created or amplified a wide range of mental health issues for which therapy dogs can be a vital resource.

For example, Immaculate Conception School in Morris, IL, brought in Boomer, a trained Great Pyrenees therapy dog in the spring of 2021 to help students cope with post-Covid stress upon return to in-person classes. Boomer has been used for stress relief and reading support. Therapy dogs deployed with individuals and families who are more isolated because of Covid have helped reduce loneliness and isolation, according to a 2020 study by Wellbeing International. They have also been present to relieve the stress on psychotherapy patients who are recounting traumatic events, a concept called “animal assisted therapy.”

We have even seen therapy dogs effectively used to mitigate the effects of ADHD and autism by engaging the person with these conditions in the task of training and developing the dog’s therapeutic capabilities.

It is crucial for individuals who have acquired dogs or other pets for therapeutic purposes to ensure that they have the resources to support any veterinary needs the pet may have. Additionally, it is important to address the underlying issues that contribute to depression, loneliness, or stress. Therapy dogs can, at the very least, be a valuable transitional resource, supplementing the costlier and more difficult to access psychiatric and psychological professional support.

As we address the long-term mental health issues that Covid and the enhanced use of digital media have created, it is important to consider how therapy dogs and other pets can be an effective tool in drawing people away from screens and back into the physical world. Caring for animals encourages physical activity and reconnects people with their gentlest and most loving emotions, away from the harshness and unreality of the online world. In these times, we need this kind of intervention more than ever.