The Dog Who Delivered Comfort and Confidence

A girl who hadn’t spoken in two years, a spaniel who understood and the woman who took a chance.

By Jane Harlan Nichols, Weston, Florida

As appeared in

Five-year-old Sally stood nervously in front of her kindergarten class, with Bella, my Cavalier King Charles spaniel, whom I’d trained to be a therapy dog, sitting calmly by her side. Her classmates were focused on Sally, waiting for her to speak.

It was June—only one week of school left—but they had never heard her voice. Not once.

Sally had selective mutism, an anxiety disorder that made her freeze up in social situations. She’d been so excited about putting on a dog show for her class. She had practiced with Bella and me for weeks. Now her eyes found mine. I nodded encouragingly.

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She took a deep breath and opened her mouth. But not a word came out. Her mouth, then her whole body, seemed to close in on itself in defeat.

I hurried to her side and whispered in her ear, “It’s okay, honey.” Then I turned to the class as if nothing was wrong. “You can come up one at a time and pet Bella,” I said. “She loves kids.”

The children lined up and took turns. Sally stood off to the side, head down. I felt awful. I was the one who had encouraged her to do this dog show. I’d thought God was nudging me, just like he’d led me to volunteer here at Gator Run Elementary.

I’m a registered nurse and I love kids and dogs. It seemed natural that God wanted me to use Bella to help children in my community, to bring them joy, comfort and reassurance the way only a dog can.

She’d already made a huge difference with Sally. It was wonderful to see the little girl’s confidence, her entire personality, blossoming. But had I pushed her too hard?

I thought back to when I’d first brought Bella to the school. She had always been great with kids, and she passed her therapy-dog certification test with flying colors. Still, I’d had to talk the school administration into approving our unique visits.

That morning in January, the guidance counselor led us to a room by the school office with a couch and a few chairs where we would work with our first student.

“Sally hasn’t spoken outside her home in two years,” the counselor told me. “Her parents have taken her to therapists, but nothing has worked.” A little girl stood tentatively just inside the doorway. Her eyes brightened when she noticed my dog.

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“This is Isabella Rose. I call her Bella,” I said. “Would you like to pet her? She doesn’t know anyone here and she’d like to meet you.”

Sally bent down and gently stroked Bella, whose tail wagged like a flag flapping in the breeze. Sally smiled.

“She does tricks,” I said. “Would you like to see?”

Sally nodded. I motioned with my hand. Bella lay down and then rolled over. Wow! Sally’s eyes said.

“She’ll do it for you too,” I said. “I can teach you.”

We visited the school once a week, Bella tugging at her leash to get to our room. Sally greeted Bella with hugs and belly rubs. I showed her the hand signals for various commands. “I tell her ‘Good dog’ after she does a trick,” I said. “You can give her a pat. She’ll understand.”

Sally was a natural with Bella. Maybe because she couldn’t rely on the spoken word herself, she was more attuned to the way dogs communicate. Bella sensed that and responded.

Soon Sally was able to take Bella through her paces all on her own. I could see her standing taller, more sure of herself each time we met.

One morning in March she was working with Bella on “shake.” Sally stuck out her hand. My spaniel extended her front paw. Then I heard it, a tiny voice, barely a whisper: “Good dog.”

Sally didn’t take her eyes off Bella, but I wanted to jump for joy. Sally spoke a little more each week, only to Bella at first, but then to me, whispered bursts of excitement that couldn’t be contained. “I wish you could come every day,” she said. “Bella makes me feel happy, not scared.”