I was born with severe food, environmental, and animal allergies. Some of my earliest memories involve swollen, shut eyes, IV’s full of epinephrine, asthma nebulizers, and arms speckled with hives the size of nickels. For years I did troubleshooting to see if there were any furry or feathered animals that would prove safe for me. Dogs of all breeds, cats, hamsters, horses, rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, and even rats were among those tested. Sadly, each interaction ended in hives, Benadryl, nebulizers, and occasional hospital visits.
After getting married, my husband and I desperately wanted to explore the idea of getting a dog. We shared the sentiment that a house feels more like a home when occupied by a four-legged companion. After much research, we connected with a dog breeder whose son had allergies similar to mine. We had a week-long allergy trial with a painfully cute brown-eyed puppy, who we fell in love with. The Miniature Australian Labradoodle became our own. We named her Henri.
There were some things I fully expected about becoming a dog owner. Endless kisses and cuddles would be received, plus sleepless nights while crate training. My spotless, white couch would turn into a blank canvas for muddy paws and slobbery tennis balls.
And then there were the parts of dog ownership that I didn’t expect, but have watched unfold with awe and gratitude.
With a puppy requiring so much attention, care, and energy, I suddenly had less time to focus on my own troubles and anxieties. My anxiety and panic disorder gradually became less prominent in my day-to-day life. Long walks with Henri cleared my mind and brought new and needed perspective to difficult situations. With Henri to focus on, I started noticing my overall mental, physical, and emotional health improving. Where I was initially concerned about a dog negatively affecting my health and allergies, the exact opposite turned out to be true.
Sharing Henri with others
About six months into life with Henri, the healing and joy that she brought me was so immense that I felt called to share it, to share her, with others. I began weekly training classes with Henri, and around her second birthday, we became a certified therapy dog team. My longtime dream of using her to help others find peace, joy, and respite was finally becoming a reality.
Whether visiting the Alzheimer’s care facility or the children’s center at the public library, Henri has proven her incredible ability to ease others into a state of relaxation and bliss. Through silly tricks, stolen kisses, and full body hugs, Henri helps people focus on the here and now. (This can be nearly impossible for those affected by loss, trauma, illness, or mental health challenges.) As one person interacting with Henri on a therapy visit put it, being with Henri is a meditative experience.
“I need this. I need her.”
It’s impossible to summarize the myriad of experiences that Henri and I have had on our therapy adventures together, but our most recent visit to the local homeless shelter is not one I’ll soon forget. If I had to guess, neither will Henri. For nearly an hour, a bearded man with kind, sad eyes laid on the floor of the community room cradling Henri in his arms. While affectionate with everyone, Henri doesn’t typically let strangers hold her so close for so long. For this man, brokenhearted and bruised, Henri didn’t move from her post.
The man told the story of his own dog, a German Shepherd, who saved him from his 30-year heroin addiction. She tragically died in a house fire six months ago. The man not only became homeless but lost the one thing he loved most in the world. Henri’s soft, wavy curls caught the man’s tears as they rolled off of his cheeks. As we wrapped up our visit, the man told me that Henri was the first dog he had interacted with since his own dog died. Henri and I padded out of the community room and the man looked up at us from the floor and tearfully said, “I needed this, I needed her.”
Reflecting on Henri’s impact in my life
“I needed this, I needed her.” Those words have echoed in my mind ever since our shelter visit. Whether Henri is making me laugh and adding joy to an already good day or letting me vent to her after a particularly miserable one, I can’t help but also think, “I need this, I need her.” Not a day goes by that I don’t feel grateful for the companionship that Henri has brought me, and the life lessons I have learned along the way. What started off as my own selfish quest to have a dog has turned into a way for me to reach and connect with some of the most beautiful and needful people in my community.
We are all in need of something. It just so happens that the brown-nosed, curly-haired dog currently dreaming at my feet is the answer to a lot of what I need in this life. Maybe dogs are the answer to what many of us need—steady reminders to be present in the moment, play as often as possible, take care of and listen to others, and go on walks.