Guest blog by Mary Dell Harrington, co-founder of the parenting blogGrown and Flown.
One of the benefits of travel is having a chance to compare the new with all that’s familiar back home. I recently joined my husband on a visit to Peru where we toured Lima, Cusco and the marvelous Machu Picchu. I loved climbing among the Inca ruins, sampling traditional Peruvian dishes and seeing real llamas! There was one thing, though, that I found troubling—the prevalence of stray dogs roaming village streets. We saw them rooting through garbage and standing in dumpsters searching for food, left to fend for themselves.
Taking care of animals has been a priority in the U.S. for nearly 150 years, beginning with the ASPCA. According to the organization’s history, Henry Bergh created the animal protection agency and was instrumental in seeing the first anti-cruelty law was passed in 1866.
The ASPCA notes that by the time Bergh died in 1888, “The idea that animals should be protected from cruelty had touched America's heart and conscience. Humane societies had sprung up throughout the nation—among the first to follow New York's lead were Buffalo, Boston and San Francisco—and 37 of 38 states in the union had enacted anti-cruelty laws.”
As a society, we depend on shelters to do important work for the public good. Animal shelters promote responsible pet ownership, rescue animals in need, and find loving homes for abandoned or mistreated animals.
But shelters can only care for a limited numbers of animals, which is where families in search of a pet to adopt can play an important role.
When we adopted Matilda in 2008, I emphasized that we wanted a dog that could handle the chaos of three young boys. When we brought Matilda home, we saw that she had the most even temperament. Even my three rowdy sons couldn’t break her calm and loving demeanor.
When Matilda was three, I knew she was ready to be a therapy dog. After we became a certified pet therapy team, we visited residents in a nursing home every week for a year. The following year, we visited a children’s day care center. I hoped to visit patients in a hospital setting, and I even considered entering her into a study in which dogs visited chemotherapy patients.
In June 2013, I had to put our therapy visits on hold. We received news that is every parent’s worst nightmare: My 9-year-old son was diagnosed with a rare type of pediatric cancer. He would require nearly a year of chemotherapy treatments plus a 6-week round of radiation.
The first few months were rough. After each cycle, my son experienced terrible nausea and lost a considerable amount of weight. He’d lie on the couch and sometimes became increasingly anxious about not feeling well. I’d call Matilda over to him so he could pet her. His face would instantly relax.
In those early days after my son’s diagnosis, my husband and I were in a constant state of stress. Sleep did not come easily to either of us. When we finally did fall asleep, inevitably one or both of us would wake up at 4:00 or 5:00 A.M., tossing and turning.
Matilda has faithfully slept next to our bed since she was a puppy. Maybe this was canine intuition, but as soon as my husband or I began our early morning stress-induced toss and turn, Matilda would jump up on our bed. She’d lay right next to me and I’d rub her belly a few times. Having her cuddling next to me, I’d fall asleep within minutes.
One of Matilda’s routines is to jump up on to my son’s bed and “tuck him in.” She lies on his bed until I say goodnight, and she follows me out the door. Lately, before my son goes to sleep, he cuddles for a few extra minutes with Matilda. He puts his arm around her neck and gently rests his head on top of her shoulders. She patiently lies there and waits for him to have his fill.
My son recently finished his last round of chemotherapy. It’s been a very long year, filled with lots of anxiety for our whole family. Through it all, Matilda was our therapy dog, giving us licks and letting us hug her whenever we needed it, which was quite often. She has brought our family laughs, joy and a whole lot of love—just when we needed it the most.
Emily Cappo is a writer and blogger at Oh Boy Mom. She is a mom to three boys and one girl dog named Matilda, a sweet and cuddly Labradoodle. Matilda and Emily are also a certified pet therapy team.