My Pet World: Therapy dog Lucy lived to make people laugh, smile

May 17, 2011|By Steve Dale

"Wha hoo," said Lucy, our miniature Australian Shepherd, as she walked into the gymnasium-sized room at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Lucy spent eight years at RIC, under the direction of medical professionals, helping stroke, spinal cord injury and burn victims in an animal-assisted therapy program.

When Lucy entered a room, everyone knew it, as she announced her arrival. I was embarrassed and worked to correct this attention-seeking behavior but it was futile. Lucy's "Wha-hoo" sparked laugher. What could I do?

Once our therapy assignment was to help a boy, about 12 years old, to better use his voice by calling Lucy from the other side of the huge room. Thing was, the boy was afraid of dogs.


I tried telling a few jokes, and told the boy Lucy liked jokes and would laugh.

Question: Why shouldn't you tell a secret to pigs?

Answer: Because pigs are squealers.

Each time I told a joke, Lucy would howl, "Wha hoo!"

The jokes didn't make the boy laugh, but Lucy did. Within 10 minutes, Lucy somehow broke the ice and the boy started asking ask her to "sit" or "roll over." He was amazed that she listened to him. Lucy knew over a dozen tricks, from "playing dead" to jumping through hoops.

Lucy visited the Rehab Institute weekly, and each time the boy seemed to gain more confidence and have more fun. We were told he had two photos in his room, one of Michael Jordan, then with the Chicago Bulls, and another of Lucy.

In four weeks, the boy achieved the assigned goal from the medical professionals: to call Lucy from other side of the room. The following week, the boy called her so often that we had to stop him; he was exhausting poor Lucy.

The week after that, the little boy was gone. My wife, Robin, and I were worried because sometimes, the stories of patients don't always have happy endings. One of the physical therapists came up to us in tears.

We thought, "Oh no." She walked right by us, going straight to Lucy with a cookie and saying, "thank you." She then hugged us, tearfully explaining that the boy had gone home much sooner than expected. She credited Lucy.

The wonders of animal-assisted therapy are mind-boggling but definitive. No one knows how dogs like Lucy wiggle their way into the hearts of people and somehow achieve success when medical professionals cannot.

Lucy wasn't a dog who liked to snuggle, except when she was working and her job was to sit next to sick child. She would do so as long as asked (and given an occasional treat).

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