Why I Use a Therapy Dog in My Practice

Why I Use a Therapy Dog in my Practice 800x300px

By: Rachel T Schromen 

In a professional field filled with forms and drafts and data, as attorneys it can be easy to lose sight of our humanity. But ultimately, we are humans first and attorneys second. I’ve been able to maintain that focus in my own practice with Mabel Mae by my side.

Mabel, a certified therapy dog, is a 7-year-oldCavatzu” (a Cavalier Shiatzu mix). She is not only a cherished member of my family, but she also plays a role in helping my estate planning and elder law clients feel at ease.

I knew about the therapeutic power of pets long before I was aware of the research. I originally had Mabel certified as a therapy dog so that I could bring additional benefit to the hospice volunteering that I do in my spare time. What I thought would be a fun and light-hearted addition to my visits ended up being something much more impactful. 

My first visit with Mabel was to a gentleman with Parkinson’s and dementia. When I arrived at the care facility, I was informed that he was particularly anxious that day. Upon entering his room, it was apparent he was quite uncomfortable. His breathing was shallow and rapid, and his eyes darted rapidly around the room. The involuntary movements from his Parkinson’s were also significant that day. I lifted Mabel up onto his lap, and within minutes his breathing slowed, his eyes rested down on her, and his arms and legs stopped moving as he rested his hands around her. I was floored and could not believe how quickly and significantly her presence made a difference for this particular patient.

The research backs up my personal experience: interactions with animals are good for our physical and emotional health. According to the National Institute of Health, connection with animals “has been shown to decrease levels of cortisol and lower blood pressure.” In our work as attorneys, however, the mental health benefits might be even more important, with research proving “that animals can reduce loneliness, increase feelings of social support, and boost your mood.”

All of these benefits have occurred with Mabel and my clients.Boy with black and white dog

In Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown writes, “The more difficult it is for us to articulate our experiences of loss, longing, and feeling lost to the people around us, the more disconnected and alone we feel.” Mabel has helped with this by encouraging communication during challenging planning meetings with clients who are grieving the recent loss of a loved one or facing a life-altering diagnosis. Her fluffy presence can help a reticent client, who has otherwise struggled to find the right words, open up and communicate clearly.

Mabel is only in the office, or in meetings, upon request by a client. Shortly after I decided to extend this option on my website, a woman scheduled an appointment and requested Mabel to be a part of the meeting. This woman had lost one of her children to suicide and was estranged from her other child. Consequently, meeting to talk about her estate planning was incredibly challenging for her. Mabel sat by her, almost unnoticed, for much of the meeting. However, whenever the topic of her children came up, she would wrap her arms around Mabel and pull her close. When tears came, she stroked Mabel’s head faster. I watched in awe as Mabel’s presence supported this client in having conversations she had avoided for years.

Brené Brown also writes, “We need to know we’re not alone — especially when we’re hurting.” As an estate attorney, many of my clients are hurting, and I want them to know they aren’t alone. I work hard to hold space for their pain, practicing deep listening and reinforcing my understanding of trauma by reading books about grief like It’s OK That You’re Not OK and Bearing the Unbearable. I dig in and excavate my own struggles with trauma and grief, learning to identify my triggers and pain points so I’m better equipped to help my hurting clients. But for some of my clients, my human presence isn’t enough. For them, a sweet snuggle with Mabel can remind them they aren’t alone.

Being a grief-informed attorney takes time and energy. It’s difficult work, but it’s work worth doing as we walk alongside our hurting clients. And as I work to center my humanity in my estate planning practice, I’m thankful to have Mabel — with her soulful eyes, furry paws, and wagging tail — with me.

Rachel Schromen 150
By Rachel T. Schromen

Rachel T. Schromen is an estate planning and elder law attorney, and owner of Schromen Law, in St. Paul.  She has been named a Super Lawyer Rising Star in 2020 and 2021, and in 2021 was named Best Estate Law Firm in Minnesota by readers of the Star Tribune.