All dogs are ‘therapy dogs’

Most researchers believe dogs are sensitive to our behaviors, body language and emotions. Many times, these four-legged therapists offer comfort when we need them the most.

A few weeks ago, I was cleaning out our 7-year-old Lab Teddy’s toy basket, and when I pulled out seven tug-of-war toys I immediately slumped, then sighed and fought back tears.

I was upset for two reasons. Those toys weren’t anything special, just 16-inch strips of heavy cotton, several machine-stitched layers with a knot tied at one end. But as a paraplegic and unable to use a sewing machine, when Teddy tugs the last one to shreds, that’s it. There won’t be any more.

The second and most important reason concerns the person who made those toys – my mom. She unexpectedly passed last September.

As I tried not to cry, I looked down and there was a black nose nudging the hand that held one of the tug-of-war toys. Two black eyes looked at me intently. And one large tongue tried to lick my face. says dogs notice subtle behavioral changes – slumped shoulders, fragile movements, immobility – and once they do, “they come to provide comfort.”

That’s what happened. Teddy saw and heard things that weren’t normal. Typically, when I have one of those toys in my hands, I would be sitting up straight calling for him in a vibrant, happy voice. This time, I sat quiet, shoulders slumped.

The pooch used behaviors he thought would get my attention or distract me from what was making me unhappy. puts it this way: “Some dogs will put a toy in your lap or nudge you and look to the door to ask for some time outside. Think of it as your dog saying ‘Hey! Don’t feel sad! Let’s do this fun thing instead!’”

I looked at that goofy, loveable face as I rubbed the head of my “therapist.” Without thinking I said, “OK, Teddy, let’s go play.” He proceeded to prance, tail wagging, rump wiggling, with toy shaking, all the way into our living room.

For the next 20 minutes, we played “fetch-shake-tug-chew,” a hybrid version of tug-of-war that I have written about previously in this space.

The clever Lab used one of his front paws to push the toy closer to the floor so he could move his mouth up the cloth strip and gain more control. He then moved in the opposite direction of me to loosen my grip.

When Teddy grabbed the toy from me, he strutted around the room shaking it in the air. Then he plopped down and started ripping it to shreds.

I laughed. My mom would have laughed, too.

Teddy is a loyal and loving dog who never asks for anything in return. Well, maybe belly rubs. And on this day, he gave me comfort.

Now, once a week, until the toys are gone, we’ll play tug-of-war. It’s what my mom would have wanted, and I believe what my “therapist” will insist upon.

How dogs read our emotions

1. Facial expressions

2. Voice

3. Smell

4. Body language


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