The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

June/July 2002    
 

The Command To Heal

BY  JIM BELSHAW

Cliff Hayes can no more explain the mystery of Bear than he can the chocolate Labrador Retriever in the Vermont VA hospital. He doesnít know why the chocolate Labís presence made his world better, just as he doesnít know why Bear brought a woman in Ohio out of the same kind of grim, depressive darkness. He knows only that when the dogs entered the bleak world of depression, something good happened.

He met the chocolate Lab in the early 1990s in a VA hospital far from his Ohio home.

"I had big problems," Hayes said. "I'm a PTSD vet and I was having seizures related to the PTSD."

He was sent to the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Vermont.

"I was really feeling down," he said. "One day I was sitting in the day room when along comes a Lab. He popped his front paws up in my lap and gave me a slurp. That changed my outlook. I will never forgot it. The Lab was a therapy dog. There were two guys there with Labradors. Thereís nothing in the pharmacy they can give you that will make you feel better than those dogs did."

Back home in Ohio, Hayes decided to get his own unofficial therapy dog. He found a Blue Merle Collie and named him Bear. For seven years, Bear kept him company, doing much the same job as the chocolate Lab in Vermont.

At the time he got Bear, Hayesí seizures prevented him from driving, but when the seizures eventually lifted, Hayes got a driverís license, a new car, and found an authorized therapy dog instructor near his home. He had come to believe in the effectiveness of the dogs and he wanted to upgrade Bearís status to official therapy dog.

The objective of a therapy dog and its handler is to provide comfort and companionship by sharing the dog with patients in hospitals, nursing homes, and other institutions. (For more information on therapy dogs, go to www.tdi-dog.org, Therapy Dogs International.)

After completing the training, Hayes found a hospital near his home that needed a therapy dog. On his first day, a nurse said she had a patient who had been admitted suffering from severe depression.

Hayes and Bear went to the patientís room. Inside, the family of the 40-year-old woman sat silently. The woman sat by herself in a corner near a window. He could see she was crying.

"I knocked and said, 'Would you care for a visit?' " Hayes said. "I went in and said, 'Hi, my nameís Cliff and this is Bear. Heís a therapy dog and Iím a Vietnam vet. I understand youíre having a bad day. Iíve had them in the past myself. But things can get better.' Bear put his paws up on her lap. He nosed around and started kissing her tears away. Then with no command from me, he laid his head on her chest and she started stroking him. Then she started smiling. It put me back on my heels watching this."

Hayes believes other people should be on their heels, too.

"Thereís a hospital here thatís crying for these dogs," he said. "And Iím wondering, where are our veterans? Where are the dog handlers who were in Vietnam? This is something VVA should look at for volunteer work. You get more out of it than you ever put in it. I'm telling you, when I saw that ladyís face in the hospital, I walked out of that room and I donít think I hit the ground - and the dog got a little steak that night. I canít tell you the feeling. There are no words for it."

   

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