When Reynold Henry’s college frat buddies gave him a fluffy golden retriever puppy they were thinking more about humor than bringing comfort to the grieving families of Newtown, Conn.
“They sort of saddled me with a big responsibility for the next 14 years of my life,” Henry laughed. “It was ridiculous. You should have seen a frat house trying to raise him.”
But years later, that college prank brought Henry and Eli — now a much larger and much better-behaved dog — on a mission of healing to Newtown.
Working at a hospital during his undergraduate studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, Henry watched therapy dogs in action.
“The kind of impact they were making was huge,” he said, listing the medical benefits a happy dog can have on patients. “At a clinical level, petting a therapy dog can lower the heart rate and blood pressure.”
After graduation, Henry moved on to Albany Medical School. In the midst of rigorous studies he found time to take Eli to six weeks of obedience training and an official therapy dog certification course.
As it turns out, doctors can’t allow just any dog into a hospital. If a rambunctious dog — however affectionate his intentions — jumped up onto the chest of a patient recovering from surgery, the ramifications could be dire.
“If a dog is jumping, it’s not going to be certified,” said Kelly Morrone, who handles the therapy dog program at Albany Medical Center.
She explained that a therapy dog has to be calm, easily controlled by its owner and unafraid of new people, new smells and wheelchairs.
Eli was certified in February and has been working for Morrone ever since.
Medical students are notoriously short on time, and Henry can manage only a few hours a month as a therapy dog handler, but when he heard about the school shooting in Connecticut, he knew he and Eli should do something.
“We’re so close,” he said, “The least I could do was raise my hand.”
He had one problem. Finals. He called officials in Newtown, and they told him he could come Friday, right between his last three-hour pulmonary final and a flight back to his hometown, San Jose, Calif.
It was a bit of a rush driving down, but once on the streets, things slowed down. He described an almost eerily decorated town.
“There were 26 of almost everything,” he said. “Twenty-Six roses, 26 penguin toys, 26 Christmas trees, one for each of the victims.”
He and Eli went to the memorial at the heart of town and just hung out for a while as groups of people stopped by for a little comfort.
“It was hard to tease apart who was from Newtown and who was just passing through,” he said. “I never asked, but you could tell, just by a look in the eye.”
He described one 6- or 7-year-old boy who came over and just sat with Eli for 10 minutes without saying a word, blinking silently before walking back to his mother. “It’s hard to gauge, but I think we did some good,” Henry said.
It’s natural to feel happy when petting a golden retriever. There’s a reason dogs are called man’s best friend but especially since visiting Newtown, Henry has tried to put his finger on why dogs have such an ability to comfort.
“I’m thinking about writing a peer-reviewed paper about it,” he said, “with all that free time I have.”
He said it’s often easier for people to express themselves to a dog than to another person. Some people might be too shy to go in for a hug, but with a dog, touch is expected.
“A dog doesn’t judge,” he said.