A Day in the Life of Charlie the Therapy Dog
Charlie is a bit of a celebrity. When she walks through the doors on Mondays and Fridays all perky and excited, everyone stops to say hello and give her a scratch behind the ears. But she can’t hang out for long, because she has an important job to do. Charlie is a therapy dog.
Her mom, Jessica, is the supervising lead clinician and an animal-assisted therapist at Mount Saint Vincent. On the day she adopted her, Jessica was just trying to pick up some groceries at the supermarket when Charlie’s face caught her eye at an adoption fair. Charlie was abandoned in New Mexico and then went to live with a foster family before coming to Colorado to be adopted. Needless to say, Jessica ended up leaving the store with a puppy instead of snacks. At the time, she wasn’t looking for a therapy dog. But after she got to know Charlie, she knew she’d be perfect for the job.
Charlie’s day at Mount Saint Vincent starts out low key. She likes to say hello to staff and then lay under an office chair for a quick nap before her real job begins. On the days she comes to work, Charlie and Jessica are a team, with Charlie accompanying her to therapy sessions. When a child struggles with attachment, relational, or trust issues, animal-assisted therapy may help the child overcome those challenges. An animal like Charlie, one of our certified therapy dogs, is typically seen by the child as nonjudgemental and nonthreatening. Allowing children who feel anxious and stressed to divulge personal information to Charlie, instead of directly to Jessica, can speed up the recovery process.
“There’s often a lot of parallel between Charlie’s life and theirs, and they often feel much safer talking to a dog than to a human. In some cases, the client will open up to Charlie ten times more than to a therapist,” Jessica said.
Charlie also helps children calm their behavior. Animals intuitively sense when a child is agitated and they will avoid that child. Children quickly learn that they need to calm their bodies, slow down their breathing, and lower their voices before Charlie will let them interact with her.
“With some of the children, we’re focusing on social skills and boundaries. So, if the child leans in to give Charlie a hug and she pulls away, I’ll use Charlie’s behavior to point out how their actions may have made her uncomfortable. It helps make them aware,” said Jessica.
Jessica also uses Charlie as an incentive for the children to engage in safe behaviors.
“An example would be if there is a situation happening on the playground, I might tell the staff that if the child can make a safe decision really quickly, Charlie would love to walk them back to where they need to be. And it’s amazing — the kids will immediately stop what they’re doing because they want to see Charlie so badly. It’s really powerful to see,” Jessica said.
After Charlie’s day is done, Jessica typically rewards her by playing fetch in the school after the children have left. Charlie sprints up and down the halls and in and out of the rooms, entertaining staff with her lightning speed and happy face. Then she and Jessica head home where Charlie takes a much deserved nap — her second-favorite thing to do after spending time with the children.
“The children love Charlie. So the motivation that is there to keep themselves accountable for her is quite amazing.”