There is a growing awareness of the value of service animals in our culture today. In actuality, they have been around for a long time, with the first seeing eye dog dating back to 1930. There have always been people with disabilities who found creative ways to train their dogs to help them with tasks they could not do themselves, such as opening the door or alerting them when the telephone rings.
The study of animal behavior and brain research has expanded our knowledge about dog intelligence and what they are capable of. We have discovered that dogs can sense and smell when a person is about to have a seizure or when a diabetic needs insulin. The real breakthrough in the use of service dogs is the scientific validation of what we have known all along – dogs know how to connect with human beings in a way that opens our hearts and calms our nervous system.
I saw a picture of Penelope on Facebook the other day. She is the service dog in training for Porter Loring Mortuaries. I focused my eyes on this adorable ball of fur and imagined the softness of her curls, the warmth of her tongue and the deep gaze of her eyes. The longer I looked, the more I noticed my breath slowing and my body relaxing. The thought of holding her was calming. This assured me that Penelope will be a special healing presence for families, and that she will do it with grace in her own unassuming “doggie” way.
Death is stressful for even the healthiest families. It is a “twilight zone” experience when everyone knows something big has changed, but no one knows what it will be like now that one member of their tribe is gone. We feel awkward around one another. We want to comfort and be comforted, but we aren’t sure how to offer or receive it. We have to plan a service for someone who can no longer guide us or tell us what they want. We might have to talk to children about why their grandparent, parent or sibling will not be at home anymore. We may have to see family members that we have not seen in years or that we are feuding with. There will be moments when we feel all alone and a little lost in a crowd of well-meaning people.
Imagine how Penelope will help…
She puts her head on the shaking knee of a man who is planning a funeral for his father. She senses this man’s deep desire to honor his dad and the concern he has for his surviving mother. Unconsciously, he reaches down and strokes her head. He finds himself taking a deep breath, his leg stops shaking and he relaxes for a moment.
Then Penelope wanders into a visitation room full of people. She doesn’t know the story, but she senses the tension. The room seems to be divided. There is a woman crying with her grown children around her on one side and another woman facing the wall with her husband on the other. Penelope quietly lies on the floor and plays with a toy in the middle of the room. It is the “no man’s land” between the two families. Slowly, people begin to notice and are entertained by her antics. When she rolls on her back and holds the toy up in her paws like a cat, the crying woman cannot help but laugh. The woman with her face to the wall turns to see what is so funny, and as she does her eyes meet with her sister’s across the room. For just a moment, they soften and relax. A space is opened for them to sense their longing for one another.
There will be other visitations where a young boy is acting up, feeling out of place and not understanding what is happening. There are so many people he does not know, and the people he does know seem different, distracted and upset. He is hyper, running around the room, until he falls and hits his head on the floor. Crying, frustrated and confused, he won’t let anyone touch him. Penelope silently walks over with her tail wagging and licks his face. He stops crying and watches as she lies down on his legs and settles in. He begins to pet her head as he looks into the crowd for his mother. The mom walks over, kneels down, and they stroke the dog together. The little boy takes a deep breath and leans against her.
Then there will be teenagers. Penelope will have a special affinity for them. They will know how to silently convey their story to her by looking into her eyes and rubbing her ears. She will provide solace when they are feeling lost and comfort when they cannot bring themselves to seek it from anyone else. Teenagers will be able to connect with her when they can’t with anyone else.
I am grateful that Penelope will be a part of the Porter Loring team. She will provide courage when there is fear. Comfort when there is sorrow. Connection when there is loneliness. Wholeness when there is brokenness. And she will do it by simply being willing to be with you.
Welcome to the Porter Loring family, Penelope.
Paula Loring, LCSW is a licensed psychotherapist. She was the Director of Porter Loring Family Care Services for many years. Currently she is an Equine Therapist at Spirit Reins in Liberty Hill, working with traumatized children and their families.