Some things are just better with a dog by your side – like long walks, reading a book, or curling up in front of the TV. When I retired a few years ago, I was eager to slow down, and I figured I would know what I was supposed to do next when the time came. It happened during a quiet lunch with a friend over a discussion about meaningfully filling one’s time. She shared with me her favorite activity, which was visiting schools and summer camps with her black lab, Jake. Jake is a therapy dog, and it sounded like Jake did all of the work while my friend tagged along. I knew about therapy dogs, but I didn’t know if only certain breeds were used or how one became trained and qualified. I asked a few questions, and as my friend talked about the work they did together, I had an epiphany. I love my dog, I spent 30 years as a special education teacher and therapist, and if I combined the two, what better way to legitimize spending all day with my dog?
I had spent my career working with children on the autism spectrum, and I had seen first-hand the joy in childrens’ eyes when a dog came to visit. I knew from my own experience that children with ASD could benefit from this type of therapy and that Service dogs were now being trained specifically to help with sensory, sleep, and many other issues facing children on the spectrum. Research indicates what most pet owners already know: interactions with animals can reduce our stress levels and increase our sense of well-being.
Two questions remained: first, would Lola, a five pound Yorkie, qualify to become a therapy dog? And second, what was the process? Apparently, size does matter. There was initial concern that she was too small and that her small dog temperament, possibly being nervous around strangers, might not be a good fit. I assured everyone that although Lola was small, she didn’t know it. And she loved people – big, small, young, old, she was always happy to meet someone new. She also seemed to intuitively know when someone needed an extra lick or cuddle.
The training to become a therapy dog was not quick or easy. Lola had to go through two levels of obedience school, handle the Canine Good Citizenship test, and then pass the behavior screening. Throughout the process, Lola and I were warned that she might not succeed. But we were both determined, and as we approached the final test, I was confident that I had a star pupil and that she would make it with flying colors. And pass she did.
Lola loves being a therapy dog. As soon as I tell her it’s time for work, she is eager to get her scarf on and head to the car. Her work in the autism classrooms has shown her uncanny ability to understand the emotional needs of others. I have seen the power of therapy dogs as Lola calms an anxious child or encourages a child who doesn’t talk to speak aloud for the first time. One day, I received a letter from a parent whose child had been quite reluctant to pet Lola but over the few months of our visits, had willingly joined the circle and engaged with her. This family’s other child loved the petting zoo, but the family had never been able to go together because their child on the spectrum was terrified. After hearing him talk about petting Lola in class, they decided to see what would happen if they took him to the zoo. It was a success, he was no longer afraid, and, for the first time, they were able to go as a family.
The teachers commented that, during Lola visits, the children sat longer and were more engaged in circle time. They asked if I could add a story to our weekly routine. I searched for a book that had a small enough dog, one that resembled Lola, and preferably one with photographs, since most illustrations are difficult for small children on the spectrum to understand. Not finding one, I decided to write my own, and now there are three books about Lola.
I know that Lola loves what she does, but the real secret is, so do I. She may be the one doing the work, but I am the one that gets to go with her. And my life is richer for it.
*Marcia Goldman has her Masters Degree in Special Education and has spent the last 30 years focusing on providing therapeutic-based programs for children with autism and their families. Lola is a five-pound Yorkshire Terrier and a proud certified therapy dog who makes weekly visits to elder care centers, bookstores and classrooms. Together they are the authors of Lola Goes to Work, Lola Goes to the Doctor, and Lola and Tattletale Zeke.
Find out more about Marcia and Lola:
- Marcia Goldman and Lola website
- Lola the Therapy Dog on Instagram and on Facebook
- Lola and Tattletale Zeke
**Images courtesy of Marcia Goldman