What Does a Therapy Puppy Do?
Whenever someone hears about Louie for the first time, they perk up.
“Really? You use a golden retriever in therapy with foster and adoptive families? That's so cool.”
We usually talk a bit about The Sparrow Fund and what we do to care for foster and adoptive families, what training a dog to do therapy is like, and then I'm usually asked something to the effect of, ”So, what exactly does he do? How does he make a difference?”
A couple months into Project Puppy Love, I've noticed some distinct ways Louie is making a difference every day on the job.
He is fun
Therapy should be fun. It shouldn't be something that makes families' hearts sink when they see it on their calendars. It's work, yes, but it should be something that smiles families into smiling too.
I try to be fun, but I'm not nearly as fun as a puppy (and I'm okay with that). Being greeted with a classic golden-retriever smile and tail wag and starting with a game of hide-and-seek just makes the work we do here fun and makes kids and parents alike more likely to want to come and come again.
He makes hard things easier
A few weeks ago, an upset tummy earned Louie a sick day. A little girl who came with her dad that day was disappointed to not see him and beautifully articulated a reason why: "Louie helps me focus because he keeps my hands busy."
The fancy way to say that is that he promotes self-regulation in the repeated motion of petting and the sensory input of long, soft fur and of deep pressure when he lays his head or whole body on people's laps. But there are other ways he makes hard things easier. For example, I've noticed how much easier it is for kids — particularly teenagers — to talk about hard things when they are able to focus attention on Louie and have their parents and me gazing at him too instead of at them. He seems to bring more words and feelings out, and that's important.
He magnifies our soft sides
Puppies bring out our high-pitch baby voice and gentleness. And, I've witnessed that here. I've seen parents' eyes grow wide as they see softness in their child that they didn't know was there. And I've seen children's jaws drop as they see softness in their parents that they didn't notice before. And, that's been a good thing because it shows them both that it's in there and that with a little bit of watering and intention, we can grow it to be seen more and more (and directed towards people!).
He gives us a chance to work on what we're working on
His fun tricks to show his expression of our feeling words (mad, sad, glad, and scared) does seem to encourage kids to be brave and express their own. But what I've noticed as more meaningful than his performance is families' mutual enjoyment of his performance. The shared experience of ooo-ing and ahhh-ing and giggling together in response when Louie closes himself in the bathroom to show mad builds connection between moms, dads, and kids. And, building connection is a big deal around here.
Beyond mutual enjoyment, Louie gives us lots to talk about that always seems to align well with what we (both kids and parents) need to talk about — things like impulse control, giving and receiving affection, asking for and getting what we need, letting someone else be in charge, making compromises, understanding others by noticing body language, navigating choices, and handling mistakes.
It still feels new to have Louie on The Sparrow Fund team joining me in the therapy room and joining us during events here at the office. I'm still learning how to do my job and help him do his. And, he's still learning how to do his job and help me do mine. That's a good thing. We're learning together and giving each other all sorts of therapy as we do.
Kelly Raudenbush founded The Sparrow Fund along with her husband Mark in 2011. They have three biological children and a daughter who was adopted as a toddler from China in 2010. She blogs at myoverthinking.com and Louie is on Instagram @ProjectPuppyLove.