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. Continued...