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
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
"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
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."