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Nathan, one of the dogs Noelle Schuyler fostered, in her office chair at the Humane Society of Nashua. Courtesy photo.




Animal instincts
How furry companions bring happiness

06/05/14



 Whether you’re a dog person or a cat person, it’s likely that your furry little pet brings joy to your life. Here’s how animals are spreading happiness, from homes to hospitals. 

 
Pet pals
No one knows the love a dog can give better than Noelle Schuyler. Schuyler has two dogs, Higgins and Guss, but that hasn’t stopped her from taking in more, at least temporarily. Schuyler has fostered seven dogs in the last few years.
“My husband and I … are so unbelievably passionate about dogs that this is a way we feel we can make a difference in a dog’s life, and it’s hugely fulfilling to us,” said Schuyler, assistant director of development and marketing of the Humane Society of Nashua. “They all have a really big place in my heart.”
Schuyler said they will often take in dogs for any behavioral issues. 
“We fostered a dog, Nathan, who was really nervous, uncomfortable, and Tim and I, we worked with him a lot. He had a fear of everyday home stuff, so to see him bond to us — it’s hard to describe that feeling,” she said. “I spent a lot of time cuddling him and just getting him used to human interaction. He gave us a lot of happiness; we impacted his life so much. ... One of the hardest pieces of it is bringing them back.” 
Joyce Hegarty, an adoption counselor at the Humane Society, knows all too well how it feels to bring back an animal after you’ve gotten attached. Hegarty often opens her home to cats and kittens. 
“I really feel like that cats are often in tune to your emotions, and there’s no judgment and you can tell them all your secrets. They won’t tell,” she said.
In the years Hagerty has spent at the humane society, she said it’s been great to watch the connections happen. 
“Usually it’s the first-time pet owners. It brings me back to understand what it’s like. You can just see the bounce in their step and that’s great,” she said. “I especially enjoy older people. You’re looking for that companion for yourself. It’s fun to watch and I really believe that more often than not, the animal chooses the person. It grabs your attention and I can see that connection being made already.” 
Hegarty has three cats, Guss, Gizmo and Brutus, and a dog, Scout.
“Scout is the dog I adopted from [the shelter]. I helped bring him in during transport and I got attached right away,” she said. “You can see it in their faces. It’s harder to resist [dogs].” 
She knows the impact of a pet can be powerful, and she’s witnessed it on several occasions. 
“My favorite story is one of an elderly woman that came in with her sister and her niece, I think, looking for a cat. She picked one with litterbox issues and it didn’t seem to deter her from adopting the cat, but I think her family was hesitant. I said, ‘If the right animal isn’t here, you can always come back,’ and she broke down into tears and said, ‘You don’t understand. I don’t have any reason to wake up tomorrow.’ And those are adoptions you really remember,” Hegarty said. 
Simon, a 12-year-old cat, and Maggie, a 9-year-old dog, have a happy home with Laurie Dufault, director of development and marketing of the Humane Society of Nashua. Dufault agrees that there is nothing like owning a pet and she sees the benefits as endless. 
“My dog is thrilled to see me every night. My pets are so incredibly loving, and there’s no better feeling in the world than that. It’s very relaxing and centering for me. It centers my life and takes away my stress,” Dufault said. 
“Seeing my dogs every single day, they always do something to make me smile and laugh,” Schuyler said. “I feel lucky that they live with me. They never have a bad day. Their good mood is infectious.”
 
Hospital happiness
Meet Elsie, a loving dog who spends a great deal of time visiting St. Joseph’s Hospital in Nashua. Elsie is part of a certified pet therapy team with her owner, John Parks. Each Friday, they walk through the hospital visiting patients and spreading smiles.
“If you are having a stressful time or you just can’t figure something out and a dog walks by, it gives you a moment to say, ‘Everything is going to be OK,’” said Michelle Canto, manager of volunteer services at St. Joseph Hospital.
Canto currently has seven certified pet therapy teams that come through the hospital for visits. 
“In the four years that I have been building [the program] ... the pet therapy teams I’ve had have been awesome. The teams have never had an accident that I’ve known of and they’ve been by far well received because they bring so much joy, and not just for the patients, for the staff as well,” Canto said. 
The dogs will stay at the hospital for a couple of hours and visit patients and walk around to different wings of the hospital. Parks and Elsie will often visit the outpatient cancer center unit, because it’s their favorite and they can interact with families. 
“When we first started here, I remember the scariest place for us was the fifth floor. That floor is the senior mental health patients, patients with dementia. There was this big day room with about 15 patients in there, and at first it was scary because everyone was so frozen in there and we didn’t know what to do, how to visit with them,” Parks said. “But we just went up and Elsie would put her head in their lap and all the sudden they would start moving and start talking and pet her and tell us about their dog that they had back home.”
Both Canto and Parks have seen first-hand what it’s like to spread joy to those who need it. 
“Four years ago, I was on the third floor and I could see a dad at the end of the hall at a window sobbing. A nurse asked if we would visit with the dad and son — his son was dying of a brain tumor — and what I witnessed, was red, wet faces and then the dog walked into the room and it all stopped. Then the family was reminiscing and went back to really happy times. They needed that break, and it was such a healing moment. I’ll never forget that. That’s when I knew we had to grow pet therapy. It was probably one of the most powerful things to witness,” Canto said. 
Parks recalled a Christmas Eve when he visited the hospital with Elsie to find a woman, alone, receiving a chemotherapy treatment.
“We spent an hour, and it was absolutely wonderful. It felt more like Christmas than shopping,” Parks recalled.  
Parks said everyone will ask about Elsie, how old she is and what she likes to do. 
“They often tell me about their animals they had, and for those 10 minutes they weren’t a sick patient in a hospital bed and it’s absolutely incredible,” Parks said. “Animals have this sensitivity and if someone was hurting, [Elsie] will go right up to that person first. She has this sense of which people need to connect.”
 
Team therapy
Maureen Ross understands the importance of animals too. As president of New England Pet Partners, Ross registers pet therapy teams in the New England area like Elsie and Parks. 
“It’s about the connection, the empathy. It’s unconditional. [Patients] are so lonely [in hospitals], that for those few 15 to 20 minutes, it gives them that incentive and they start talking,” Ross said. 
Ross said depending on your relationship with your dog, you can become a registered pet therapy team on your own time through the online course. When your training is complete, you just need to pass the test. 
“You need to have a strong relationship with your dog,” she said. “You need to make sure the animal is desensitized to unfamiliar things.” 
But Ross said that dogs aren’t the only animals to spread joy. Cats and even horses are used as therapy animals as well. Ross said horses and cats may be helpful with working with autistic children. 
“Dogs help people connect and break down barriers. They’re non-judgmental and they’re always there, and they listen — cats do too,” she said. “Animals have this sixth sense, this inner sense that knows.” 
 
As seen in the June 5, 2014 issue of the Hippo.





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