The American Humane Association sends its famed Red Star animal-assisted therapy teams to aid children with cancer, military families coping with the impacts of service, and those who have been traumatized from disasters. And that’s how Amy McCullough, national director of animal-assisted therapy for the American Humane Society, found herself on a plane with her therapy dog Bailey Tuesday heading from her home state of Colorado to Boston. Boston.com Pets talked to McCullough about her three days in Boston and how Bailey helped Bostonians heal.
Boston.com Pets: How is animal-assisted therapy beneficial to people during tough times?
McCullough: Some of the anectodal research has started to show that petting a dog can really be an affective tool for relieving stress and anxiety. Pets can be even more affective in relieving stress than a friend or a spouse. They can relieve depression, reduce pain and fear. Petting a dog helps lower blood pressure and slows down the heart rate. We could see that at the (bombing) sight. We could see people visibly relax when petting her. There’s something safe when you are around a dog. People feel they can talk about what they’re feeling. You see this friendly wagging being and it has that affect on people.
Boston.com Pets: Why was it important for you to come to Boston?
McCullough: I’ve seen the comfort Bailey could provide so I just felt it would be a great fit. There are millions of people here that needed healing. It was so amazing to be on the front lines today providing this service. Bailey and I have been a therapy team for 11 years now. Bailey is a 14-year-old golden retriever. We adopted her from the shelter when she was 3 and she was so calm I said, “Wow, I’ve got to be able to share her.”
Boston.com Pets: Do you work with other therapy dogs?
McCullough: Bailey is the only dog I work with. She’s my personal pet. There are a couple other organizations I’ve partnered with since I’ve been here. There’s a national group called Pet Partners. They have a very strong local group here in Boston at Tufts University called Tufts Paws For People. Yesterday at one of the events we had a huge Newfoundland—a big gentle giant—a pit bull, a shih tzu, and a miniature horse.
Boston.com Pets: The kids must have loved that!
McCullough: Absolutely. But really any breed can do this. You see a lot of labs and goldens doing this but really it just depends on the dog’s demeanor. Sort of the innate quality that they all have to have is to want to seek interaction with other people. They are excited for anyone to come near them and it makes people feel wanted. There’s therapy cats, goats, llamas, rats…
Boston.com Pets: Did you just say rats?
McCullough: Yes. Rats can be amazing. They are very social animals, they are very clean animals. They are small enough that kids can hold them. They’re very sweet. I had to be convinced as well.
Boston.com Pets: How are the pets trained to be therapy animals?
McCullough: A lot of the training is basic obedience. With Pet Partners, there’s a formal test with 22 exercises. And every two years they must maintain the certification. Tufts Paws for People is having a training soon.
Boston.com Pets: Tell us about your experience on Boylston Street this week.
McCullough: Two days ago when Bailey and I first walked through the memorial site you could just feel in the air the weight of what has happened there and people immediately just flocked to Bailey. Some were silent, with tears running down their faces and others felt safe and comfortable enough to talk. I felt honored that they were willing to share their stories with me. A man, the first day we were there, was petting Bailey, and he said he was there at the memorial because he had lost his son to cancer when he was Martin Richard’s age. Another gentleman approached and said he was one of the marathon volunteers and he did it for seven years and he said he had the flu last Monday. Because he had the flu he wasn’t at his usual post and he had to process his relief and guilt. The children are sort of quiet around the memorial and then you will hear, “Doggy!” One little boy grabbed me by the hand and then he pulled me over to the memorial and he wanted me to see what he placed at the memorial and his mom said it was his favorite toy and he said, “That’s for the people who got hurt.”
Boston.com Pets: Do you have therapy training?
McCullough: I don’t have any sort of mental health training. I’m a marketing person by trade. I try not to overstep my bounds. I try to just listen basically and validate their feelings.
Boston.com Pets: Did you leave Boylston Street at all this week?
McCullough: Tufts Paws for People invited me on a few places they had been requested. These sort of first responders are on day 11 of helping people so we wanted to give some respite to these first responders who have been working tirelessly. The mental health counselor there said the entire building’s mood had completely turned around from a tired, glum mood to happy and relaxed. We were at the American Red Cross headquarters in Cambridge. While we were in Cambridge we swung around to the MIT police department because we wanted to show our respects to Sean Collier there. There is a memorial there for the officer and we stopped in and thanked them and a couple of the officers came out to pet the dogs and had some stress relief there as well. In the evening the Boston Athletic Association organized an event for the Boston Marathon volunteers. The volunteers were sort of helping each other sort through their feelings in the aftermath. They were able to share and help each other out. So our dogs were there to help people. People got to pet them while they talked.
Boston.com Pets: What else do you want us to know?
McCullough: We partner with therapy volunteers in the local community. The Red Cross and marathon volunteers (events), I was able to attend those because of Tufts Paws for People. I just want to emphasize that the therapy dogs that are serving the Boston community are here and are going to be serving Boston tomorrow and next week and next month and next year.
Boston.com Pets: Tell us about Bailey. What does Bailey do when she’s not working?
McCullough: When she’s just being a regular dog, she loves to chase the tennis ball, even at 14. I feel badly I didn’t bring it with us, she’s been missing her tennis ball. And she loves to eat. If you say the word “T-R-E-A-T” you will have her attention immediately.
Boston.com Pets: Is she right there listening? Is that why you spelled it?
McCullough: (laughs) Yes.
Boston.com Pets: How did you and Bailey travel here?
McCullough: We flew. Because she’s a working dog with her vest they allow her to fly in the cabin.
Boston.com Pets: Have you been to Boston before?
McCullough: No. This is our first trip. I really want to come back so I can explore more of the city. The buildings are beautiful. The people have been really friendly. I can’t wait come back and go to a Red Sox game.Kristi Palma can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on twitter @kristipalma.