Puppy Love

How My Amazing Mutt Became a Therapy Dog

Rio spreads his love in hospitals throughout the land

When I was staring down 40, I had a miscarriage. I can't recommend the experience. But, around the same time, whether by coincidence or fate, a sweet Labrador retriever mix was born into an unwanted litter of puppies. Twelve weeks later, my husband and I found ourselves in a high-kill animal shelter in New Mexico and fell in love with the silly, scrawny pup whose tail didn't stop wagging until he fell asleep in Bryan's lap. We named the puppy Rio and brought him home to Colorado, where he immediately ate my slippers.

In the nearly 8 years since, Rio's blossomed into 85 pounds of love—and I've become a crazy dog lady. He's my first dog, so I had no idea how much joy he'd bring to my life. I love watching him greet each day by rolling onto his back and kicking at the sky, or race around in happy circles when we encounter people with dogs on hiking trails, or rejoice in finding a perfect stick.

"He's rich in 'dogly' goodness!" we like to say.

That goodness is too awesome to keep to ourselves, so several years ago, I took a therapy dog training class with Rio and he passed the certification test like a good boy. It was an incredibly proud moment when there were tantalizing treats on the ground and he obeyed "leave it," despite his desire to transform into a "Flabrador retriever."

But I'm most proud of watching him bring smiles to hospital patients, as well as their visitors and stressed nurses. Rio greets everyone like it's the most exciting moment of his life—he wags with his entire body and wiggles his way to kiss his new friend. I've seen him kiss feet, knees, hands, ears and once try for an oxygen mask, to the delight of the lady wearing it. Everyone thinks they're his favorite.

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We meet people of all ages, races and walks of life, and each one is his "favorite" for at least a few minutes. But kids get the royal treatment. He's a hit in waiting rooms with big families, shaking hands and high-fiving between ear licks. The little kids can pull on his ears or rub his belly and he just wiggles even more. Teens usually put down their phones and devices to pet Rio, which the parents love. One woman chastised her daughter, "You're missing it!" The girl put down her phone, got a kiss and then took a selfie with Rio.

One little boy, being pulled in a wagon by two people wearing masks and dragging an IV, pet Rio and then kept his arms outstretched toward the "puppy" as his parents pulled him away. A young girl held out her doll for Rio to kiss. A 9-year-old boy opening birthday presents in his grandmother's hospital room took a break to play with Rio and as we left, announced, "I like your dog!"

I laugh a lot with patients, but some moments take my breath away. One room held a cowboy with a handlebar mustache staring at an elderly woman, probably his mom, lying in bed. She was sort of listless until Rio trotted through the door. Her face lit up and she asked incredulously, "Is that a dog?" Then she whipped her head toward her son and said, "I guess I can see a little bit!" Then Rio kissed her hands and looked into her failing eyes with his brown soulful ones and wagged like crazy as the lady stroked his ears. Handlebars tipped his hat to me and said, "This is a good thing you're doin'."

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While dogs might not be able to make the blind see, many studies have proven a variety of health benefits derived from spending time with companion animals; the nonprofit Human Animal Bond Research Institute maintains a research database with over 28,000 entries. We know that gazing into a dog's eyes increases the love hormone oxytocin in both the human and canine, and that we're more likely to survive a heart attack if we have a pet. In one of my favorite studies, researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia found that humans who petted a dog for 15-30 minutes experienced approximately a 10 percent drop in blood pressure. Tellingly, the dogs' blood pressure dropped as soon as the humans began petting them.

So, while Rio is special, he's not the only special dog. Dogs default to trust and happiness—it's a hallmark of the species. When my dog is nice to people at the hospital, he's not doing it out of a sense of obligation. Being joyful and loving is just who he is.

It's immensely helpful to have that upbeat energy around in a crisis. When Rio was only 2 years old, my husband needed a kidney transplant, so I gave him my left kidney. When Bryan and I were released from the hospital and friends brought Rio back to us, he squealed, kissed us frantically and then wedged himself between us on the couch to be as close as possible.

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He's sweet in quiet moments, too: When I got the news that my beloved grandpa died just shy of his 100th birthday, I cried in the backyard, picking at the grass. Rio leaned into me before licking away my tears.

I'd say my dog seems to know what's needed in any situation, but isn't love always needed? Recently, at the hospital, we approached two nurses whispering in the hallway. The one with an initially furrowed brow spotted Rio and dropped to the ground to hug him as a huge smile spread across her face. "Did you know I just had a bad day? Did you know how much I needed this?" she exclaimed while Rio covered her neck and face with kisses. She laughed and kept cooing to him, "You are just a joy bringer, I can tell! A joy bringer!"

He sure is. And it makes me so hopeful to know that across the country, millions of dogs are spreading joy in hospitals, airports, courthouses, Alzheimer's wards, domestic violence shelters, schools, offices … and, best of all, our homes.

Tags: friendship