The concept of animal teachers first gelled when my old cat, a Maine Coon, showed me how letting go is the way to go.
"Is Kenny here today?"
She was a feisty girl with sturdy front legs, big tufted paws, and equally big opinions. If I ever had to give her a pill—for worms, mostly—she would demonstrate her displeasure with a quick initial hiss of displeasure almost instantaneously followed by a furry fury of batting paws. When she stopped, though, and the pill made its way down her gullet, it was immediately over. We were friends again: no hard feelings, a detente after an unpleasant skirmish.
Kenny, my current animal teacher, is a sweet, affable Australian Mini Labradoodle whom I picked from a litter of wriggling, eight-week-old puppies as the creature who would make the best therapy dog. In the nearly ten years since, he has more than lived up to my prediction, putting his heart and soul into his work at the School of Nursing and in his rounding and visits at UVA Health, where he still goes each week. I learned many things from him during our time together, but perhaps the most poignant lesson was about sharing space and time in comforting silence.
Learning to share space and time in comforting silence
I was working in my office between classes. Kenny was curled up under the desk when a student knocked on the door and asked, “Is Kenny here today?” Hearing his name, he sprung up to see and met the young woman near the door. She acknowledged me, then plunked herself on the floor with him, like students sometimes did. I noticed that she was cuddling with him, so I went back to my projects.
After a few moments, I looked up and saw that she was crying while holding him close. I asked her if she needed anything. She assured me that she did not and went back to holding and stroking him, so I quietly refocused on my work. After several more minutes, she got up quietly, dried her tears, said, “Thank you,” and left.
In that moment, and others like it, I knew that she was doing what she needed to do, and he was doing what his temperament and training prepared him to do. To paraphrase Charlie Brown, “There’s nothing like a warm [therapy] dog.”