As anyone who’s ever experienced the loss of a loved one knows, the grieving process can be brutal. But there’s a certified therapy dog out there who bravely offers a strong shoulder to cry on. And for the people who have taken her up on it, she’s a hero. Her name is Vivian Peyton, Vivian for short, and she’s as beautiful as she is sensitive.
Oh, and did we mention she’s a Pit Bull whom previously no one wanted?
Vivian’s sweet, gentle personality makes her especially suited to bereavement counseling. “She is a gentle soul who just wants to love and be loved,” says her owner and therapy partner, grief counselor Michele Pich.
Pich is co-director (with Dr. Cindy Otto) of VetPets, the animal-assisted activities program at Penn Vet that makes weekly visits to the Ronald McDonald House in Philadelphia with certified dogs belonging to staff and students at the vet school.
“She is patient, sensitive, and flirtatious,” Michele adds. “She knows how to work a room, and also knows when someone is hurting and needs a little extra attention. Vivian loves lots of affection and is always eager to please. She is a silly girl who likes to show off and play, but also knows when someone just needs someone calm and fuzzy to hug. She is a big snuggler!”
The foregoing is all understatement: To watch this dog in action is to appreciate a dog’s almost psychic sixth sense. No wonder people are unanimously in love with her. “I have had several kids and parents tell me that Vivian is their favorite dog who visits the Ronald McDonald House, or that she reminds them of their dog at home,” Michele says. “I have been told by some families that they would love to take her home with them.”
“Vivian started life in very tough conditions, and was bullied by other people and dogs,” she continues, “so she teaches kids that bullies don’t win in the end. One of the kids told me that Vivian was ‘the kind of dog I can tell my secrets to and I know she listens.'”
Vivian takes her cues on how to act from the people around her. “Some kids just want to play with her and forget that they are sick,” Michelle explains. “Other times, when the children are not feeling well, or when the grieving pet lovers are sad, she lays her head on their laps, or rolls over belly-up to show that she can just be there as a support system, too.”
Vivian’s empathic personality makes her a natural for canine grief counseling. Michele notes that she was a huge asset in helping her mourn the loss of her beloved dog, Cleopatra, who died aged 13 last year after a two-year battle with cancer and chemotherapy. She met Vivian several months later when she got involved with New Leash on Life, a program in which prison inmates are paired with shelter dogs at risk of being euthanized.
Vivian’s presence had such a healing effect on Michele that the two soon became a permanent item. “I did not think I was ready for another dog, since I was still so heartbroken about the loss of Cleo,” Michele admits. “But Vivian has been a welcome and amazing addition to our family, and one of the most influential aspects of my own healing process.”
The animal-assisted grief support program at Penn Vet got its start when some of Michele’s students organized a VetPet therapy dog visit for her Pet Loss Support Group clients with certified therapy dogs, aiming to help ease their pain of missing their own pets.
So, in addition to reducing blood pressure, heart rate, and stress, dogs can help heal a broken heart — and Vivian is the living proof.
“Vivian has been a huge help to many people who come in grieving for their own pets,” Michelle says. “I have been told that Vivian has understanding eyes, and that since she has dealt with trauma and pain in her own life, it is evident that she can understand when my clients are in pain as well. Just a simple doggie smile, or the way she walks up and leans against a grieving pet lover, helps the person to focus on something other than their pain for a brief second, long enough to smile themselves.”
Vivian and her fellow therapy dogs are lifesavers in more ways than one: Their healing presence may start a ripple effect that gets a grieving human thinking about visiting their local shelter, adopting, and becoming a pet parent again.
“One client told me that she had not been able to find anything to smile about, or anything that could bring her joy after losing her dog, but then she came into my office and I saw her smile, and she has since asked me about Vivian every time I have spoken to her,” Michele says. ”She still misses her dog that passed away, but she can see that there is healing after loss, and sometimes it comes in the form of a four-legged friend.”
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