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Grieving Dogs Help Grieving People

Chex, a Newfoundland, and my dog Maddie, a Black Lab, had been going to a nursing home in Castro Valley, California, for several months. The Activities Director there was so impressed with what Chex and Maddie could do for the patients that she told an administrator at Castro Valley Adult and Career Education (CVA&CE) about them.

At the same time, a woman in the grief support group at CVA&CE mentioned to the teacher that it would be nice to have animals there. A great idea! Hazel Jacoby (owner of Chex) received a call from the administrator at CVA&CE and in February 2014, Chex and Maddie started going to the grief support group.

During the day, Monday through Friday, CVA&CE offers many classes for adults with developmental disabilities. Chex and Maddie participate in a class for adult students who are grieving the deaths of loved ones who are dearly missed. The dogs each attend twice a month to provide support to those in the group.

The group sits in a circle, each student in turn sharing something about his or her loved one. They also work on journals, writing about those who have died, drawing pictures, and making scrapbooks. At the beginning of the class, Chex and Maddie lie down in the middle of the circle and then move around to be with those who need their loving attention.

The teacher, Kath McCormark, says, “I can’t imagine having group without Chex or Maddie in attendance. The dogs notice when one of the students is having an especially difficult time. They are there for our students when they are sad or sharing something at a very deep level. Chex and Maddie have really transformed the feel of the group!”

One day, I mentioned in the group that Maddie, too, was grieving because my other two dogs, who were Maddie’s good buddies, had died. Lawrence passed away just before Christmas and Albert two weeks later. Albert apparently missed Lawrence so much that he simply stopped eating.

I told the students how Albert had been lying next to Lawrence in the last few moments before Lawrence went to Doggie Heaven, resting his paw on his friend. As it happened, two dogs in Hazel and Chex’s home, Sassy and Sugar, had died recently, too.

Suddenly the students started talking about their pets who had died. They clipped pictures from magazines that looked like pets they once had. They drew pictures of them and wrote about Chex and Maddie in their journals. And they gave Chex and Maddie gentle hugs to comfort them.

One student in the class, Craig Heatcote, wrote for the CVA&CE AWD Voices (AWD stands for Adults With Disabilities), a newspaper produced by CVA&CE students, “Maddie and her handler Patricia came to our grief class. She talked to us, and Maddie made us happy because some students cry in that group. We write in our journals. We talk about family and friends who have died…. After break, Chex and his handler come in. It is good to be with the dogs.”

One day, a student was talking about all his family members that had passed away. He said he was the only one left. Tissues were passed around the group as he talked about his losses. Then he got up and hugged Maddie as he wiped away his tears. Maddie responded with the unconditional love and caring that only a dog can provide.

Another student, Scott Tanner, said, “Having the therapy dogs come here helps me remember my dogs…. I have no dogs now, so Chex and Maddie are special to me. They are so sweet…. Chex is a cool dog. Maddie is always sleeping, but also listening to us, which makes me relax.”

A third student, Maria Ramirez, commented, “It’s so nice to have therapy dogs in our grief group…. I feel so good when the dogs are here.”

As dog lovers know, the consoling energy that flows between people and their pets can help soothe the deepest of wounds. Chex and Maddie certainly are having a positive impact on these special adult students, providing unconditional love and helping them cope.

Patricia Wheeler, PhD in Education, has been a therapy dog handler since November 2002. Her dogs have put in over 3,200 hours at several sites and programs in the East Bay. She is a tester/observer for Therapy Dogs Inc.  and has written a book, Successful Tails: The Wonders of Therapy Dogs. Full details are available at phwheeler.com.

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Main article photo by: Patricia Wheeler