I’m starting a new series. Learning Grace. It’s going to be all about a girl and her dog. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, I just didn’t know where to start. Then I was asked by a site called upwave (which is sadly now defunct) to contribute a post called–

Why I Made My Dog a Therapy Dog


I’ve always been a dog lover, but I’ve never been a dog owner. After twenty years of successfully denying it, I could finally recognize dog avoidance for what it really was: my deep-seated fear of falling in love with a precious being that would open my heart completely and then leave me too soon.

When I fell, I fell hard, and in May of 2010, I brought home a squirming, untamed mass of hair, teeth and tail that I didn’t know the first thing about caring for. I named her Grace because I felt like I needed some. I can assure you, this 8-week old Labrador scared the hell out of me. The only thing I knew for certain was that I didn’t just want a dog; I wanted a well-behaved dog. So I took to training her like a recovering alcoholic takes to meetings. And despite my dogged effort, it was clear to me that I was not the teacher in this relationship.

Learning Grace has been an astonishing journey. From day one, she has refused to respond to aggression in any way. Instead, she meets harshness with defiance, and softness with submission. As a result, she forces me to be patient and tender at all times. She also has an uncanny ability to make friends with anything. Once, in a store, Grace got all wiggly and dragged me to the mannequin in the corner. She nosed the mannequin’s hand, and its arm moved up and down, which got Grace even more excited so she nudged the hand again. And darn if that mannequin didn’t stand there for several minutes petting my dog!

After a year of hearing people glow about her, using words like soothing, healing, calm, gentle and magical, I decided we could put that goodness to work.

Therapy dog certification is partly a teamwork and obedience evaluation, but really, it’s a stress test. Grace was put through a series of increasingly more confusing and tense situations, and if she responded with even a hint of aggression, she would fail. But not my dog, of course. When a crazy crowd of people wearing funny costumes, throwing crutches and yelling loudly came rushing at my dog, she wagged her whole body in anticipation. She couldn’t wait for them to get at her.

As a volunteer with Love On 4 Paws in Los Angeles, Grace has visited with amputees, severely disabled children and people who are grotesquely disfigured, terminally ill or lost in dementia. Her approach with all of them is the same. She wants nothing more than to jump up next to them and eek out a smile from beyond their pain and misery. That’s the stunning beauty of therapy dogs: they have no capacity for judgment or pity.

Among the many heart-melting moments we’ve experienced, one stands out. There was a young woman who’d been in isolation for a week. Her doctor approved a therapy dog visit but, since we couldn’t go in an isolation room, she came to us. She walked out into the hall wearing a mask, took one look at Grace and dropped to the floor in tears. Grace moved on in and expertly licked those tears away, turning them into laughter. That girl clung to my dog like she was a life raft. And I will never forget it.