The Therapy Dog: Traveling Through Illness With Pups

My dogs have always been an important part of my life. My first best friend was a dog; this is how we country folk roll. He was the family pet, an English Setter, and he could not only hunt down quail better than most dogs in the South, but he also knew how to sit patiently alongside my dressed up American Girl Dolls as I taught basic math on my chalkboard. I remember back to the days when my parents would argue, and I’d run to find Billy. He would then immediately follow me into our quiet corner where we could hold each other in comfort. We hated it when our parents fought. We despised loud noises: the rumble of thunder or even a stern voice. But he never minded the silly bows I tied around his long ears, the squeezing hugs of a tiny 30-lb. child, or the constant “school” lessons among lifeless dolls and stuffed bears lined perfectly in a row.

Billy passed away before I even reached middle school. Joining our family many years later was another English Setter, and a few years after that, my own puppy Bella: an orange and white, slightly plump Beagle with the softest ears and biggest heart.

I left for college and Bella stayed behind on the family ranch. We both had terrible separation anxiety. We cried (yes, the both of us) every time we had to be apart. After graduating from the University of Texas, I continued to build my life in Austin working in public relations. No more than a year and a half later, I fell chronically ill with late-stage Lyme disease (MSIDS), and associated co-infections. I eventually became so sick that I recently had to leave my life in Austin behind. I was forced by my health to leave my growing career, my new apartment, my best friends, and boyfriend. I came home—my first home, back to my parents. The place I spent my formative years hugging dogs, and piling kittens into doll strollers. I came back to what many would call a simpler life, but it lacked all the things that I once believed encompassed our thought-out “must-have” list for life in our 20s. My life now is along the Red River in Texas, 20 miles from the nearest grocery store, and one where my social life consists of a little Instagram scrolling and talking to my dogs.

Now no longer four years old and playing make-believe, but approaching my 25th birthday, it’s been a difficult adjustment being back where my life started. I stare out my window and see the long dirt road leading toward the smallest fleck of civilization. There are sunrises and sunsets that make you believe in God—ones that make you believe in magic, in miracles, and how those little moments might actually save us all. There’s that unforgettable Texas sky full of stars that will make you question what exists beyond our tiny world—the one that lets us breathe, and the one that exists inside our minds.

The true comfort in my life with new limitations, constant medications, and treading through treatment and doctor appointments, does not always exist with the sunrise or the night sky, but rather, my little Beagle, always by my side, hogging the bed or demanding to be the little spoon as we snuggle until we are finally at rest.

Bella 2

You see, my dog gets it. She knows that I’m sick, and she knows just what I need to feel comforted. If I fall into a depression or slip into a seizure, she is by my side. If I have to sleep all day, she’s in bed with me. If I have to crawl to the bathroom because my legs are too weak to walk, she walks slowly by my side and waits outside the door for my return.

bella 1

I, a somewhat mystical believer, wholeheartedly believe in the power of dogs, but as it turns out, so do scientists. Studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia revealed that just petting a dog can release serotonin and oxytocin providing necessary psychological and physical support.

It’s no doubt that many pets provide unconditional love while having the unique ability to improve one’s mood. Take me for example, if I just see a kitten, it’s game over, and I can feel my serotonin levels rise at an exponential rate. Sometimes, it rises so fast, I burst into happy tears. I’m on the extreme side of the animal-lovin’ spectrum, but I think a sweet puppy nuzzle or a kitten boop on the nose can do everyone a little good.


Best of all, your pet’s love isn’t complicated. They provide a necessary companionship when you are suffering from isolation, whether that be literal isolation or one due to depression.

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Is there real science behind therapy dogs? Oh, is there ever. We know this simply by observing service dogs, ones with full-time in-need owners, and those who visit nursing homes and hospitals. Service dogs today go beyond physical service, but are used for neurological disorders and diabetes, as well. And to think it’s all because of their sixth sense, or rather, very keen sense of smell. Their noses are thousands of times stronger than humans (which begs the question: how do they not gag at the smell of their own farts?).

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So what other wonderful things can dogs do to promote better health? Here are just a few:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Predict an oncoming epileptic seizure
  • Lower your heart rate
  • Release those “feel good” chemicals of the brain to combat anxiety, depression, and pain
  • Help the visually and hearing impaired
  • Help the autistic deal with processing auditory and visual stimuli
  • Some therapy dogs (and cats) can even sense low blood sugar with those with diabetes, sense an oncoming heart attack, smell cancer, and sense death

We’ve all heard the dog superhero stories of canines saving people’s lives. Whether they rush into a burning building, alert us of an oncoming seizure (or home intruder), or provide the necessary open love we value most. I’m starting to believe that a dog is truly the best medicine for us all.

Ready for a good weep? Check out how these animals (of all varieties) did the most wonderful acts of kindness.

And as my family says, “we sure do love critters.”

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How has your critter helped you? Tweet us @litdarling.

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