Our family has always had pets and each is a valued member of the family. Our painted turtle, Myrtle, is over 30 years old. She was my husband, Joel’s, birthday gift when he was 15 years old and has made multiple moves over state lines with him, and eventually with both of us and our two children. We also have given a home to three gerbils, a dozen Koi fish, and two dogs.
But it wasn’t until after our daughter, Charlotte, died at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012, that we realized the full impact dogs can have on our well being.
Charlotte was an avid dog lover. When we rescued our yellow Labrador, Lily, Charlotte was three years old. Charlotte accompanied Lily on her first veterinary visit, and quickly decided that she would be a doggy doctor when she grew up. Charlotte spent her playtime with Lily or playing with her stuffed dogs. Loving dogs was one of her defining characteristics.
In the months following her death, Joel and I searched for the perfect way to honor Charlotte. We settled on focusing on the thing she loved second to only her family, dogs. With the help of award-winning author Renata Bowers, we wrote the children’s book Good Dogs, Great Listeners: The Story of Charlotte, Lily and the Litter.
The book focuses on Charlotte’s relationship with her constant companions, Lily and her litter of stuffed dogs. The details and adventures are authentically Charlotte and beautifully illustrate the strong bond between Charlotte and Lily. As we were working on publishing Charlotte’s story, another story was beginning to write itself and it involved our son, Guy. This story also included dogs.
Guy attended the Reed Intermediate School in Newtown, and in the winter and spring of 2013 the school administration brought in dozens of therapy dogs to comfort Newtown students. Initially, Guy was anxious about returning to school, but the therapy dogs were highly effective in helping Guy acclimate. They provided a sense of calm, eased anxiety, and provided a perceived layer of security that had been stripped away on December 14th.
During many school days, Guy interviewed the therapy dogs and took notes that he kept in a notebook. Months later, he decided he wanted to write a book just as Joel and I were working on Good Dogs, Great Listeners. Guy thought everyone should learn about the therapy dogs that visited his school. He wanted his book to be a tribute to the dogs and to highlight their different personalities.
Guy worked on this project for two and half years, and in September 2015, The Dogs of Newtown was released. For Guy, it was his way of saying “thank you.”
After watching the powerful impact these dogs had on Guy and to honor Charlotte’s biggest passion, Joel and I decided to advocate for the use of therapy dogs in all schools. We founded the Charlotte’s Litter program to bring awareness to benefits of therapy dogs in schools with the hopes that more schools and districts will adopt a therapy dog program of their own.
We have seen steady interest from schools that would like to introduce therapy dogs, and our next concern is advocating for and supporting the training of more therapy dog teams to meet the demand.
Our family has suffered a tremendous loss and we continue to grieve each day. We were fully aware of the joy and comfort a family dog brings to a home, but had never considered the impact that working therapy dogs would have on our family.
Most of these therapy dogs are just regular pets who like to sleep, cuddle, play catch, and perform tricks for treats in their leisure time, but when it is time to work they commit to giving fully to the human they are helping.
It is a demanding job, but these dogs demand nothing in return. That is dedication to the highest degree.