I’d like to draw your attention to an emerging crisis. A crisis that looms even larger and more ominous than our country’s staggering deficit or our precarious interests in the Middle East. I am, of course, speaking about the proliferation of therapy companion animals. In less time than it took us to move from cell phones the size of bricks to the size of Kit Kat bars, therapy animals have swept over this country like locusts. The ancestor of these “therapy companions,” which now enjoy equal space in our grocery stores, theatres and airliners is, of course, the gallant “seeing-eye dog.” That loyal animal which escorts its master safely down sidewalks and across perilous streets. From such humble and practical beginnings, we now have an animal for every conceivable illness, malady or syndrome known to WebMD. I spotted a wiener dog the other day wearing one of those little red vests that said Anxiety Therapy Companion. Not twenty-four hours later, I see a mom and three kids marching into a dance performance with a golden retriever wearing a vest that read: Autism Therapy Companion. It didn’t seem to be aware that it had a job to do. It wasn’t standing alert or, as far as I could tell (albeit I’m no expert) doing anything special. It seemed to lay down on its side as often as it got the chance. Perhaps to my untrained eye, I’m missing the nuance of his assistance.
Recently, it came to my attention that a group of concerned citizens has formed a nonprofit group to raise and train therapy dogs for overweight children. They assign the dogs to the children by weight, both the child’s and the dog’s. The chubbier the child, the chubbier the dog. The concept, as I understand it, is that by being around a dog that is more robust than the child, the child feels thinner, and thus better about him or herself. The society providing this assistance is using labradors, because, as anyone who has spent any time around a lab will tell you, those things will eat ten meals a day if you let them. The program has been hailed largely (no pun intended) as a success, but there have been challenges. In a few instances, children have, how shall I put this, “outpaced” their dogs in girth. The animals had to be returned to the association’s kennel for “retooling” (i.e. placed on a strict regimen of high-fat liver flavored doggy shakes and other tasty caloric snacks).
I put a call into the White House to alert First Lady Michelle Obama about this program, and to my pleasant surprise, she called me back. As many of you know, the First Lady launched a campaign to battle childhood obesity and promote a healthy diet. After explaining the program to her, Michelle (as I now call her), told me that she was concerned that this cutting edge therapy program might actually be enabling these children to continue to live an unhealthful lifestyle. Michelle inquired whether these companion therapy animals might better be trained to, for example, throw themselves between their chubby masters, as, say, they were reaching for a piece of chocolate cake. I replied to Michelle that might be pretty dangerous for the animals, but that I would see what I could do to communicate her thoughts to the association.
Don’t get me wrong. I am pro companion therapy animal. I even decided to borrow my neighbor’s weimaraner, Gus, a dog bred over centuries to fulfill its essential role of being photographed wearing human clothing – in short, an animal harboring little to no remaining dignity, to act as my therapy companion. (My family is not able to have a pet, as my wife is allergic to having hair on the couch, that and muddy footprints).
As I have settled into middle age, I have found myself often plagued with the discomfort of gas buildup and bloating, especially after enjoying a large Mexican meal. So I thought, perhaps an anti-acid therapy companion might help. You know, calm me, and aid in settling the digestive juices. Truth be told, Gus is getting up there in years, eleven on his last birthday. Which, of course, in human years is 385. So he’s a little slow off the dime. And they say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but, he already has most of the necessary skills. He walks as slowly as I do, doesn’t pull on the leash, and he collapses at my feet the moment I give him the chance. As I was hesitant to invest any actual money into my new endeavor, I was challenged to come up with a suitable, but necessary “official vest” for him (So I could take him anywhere I wanted, places where others might ignorantly consider his presence inappropriate). The only thing red I could find in the house was a kitchen apron my sister-in-law gave my wife for Christmas last year, with “Kiss the Chef” printed across the front. However, by folding it in half and flipping it upside down, I was able to loop the neck stringy thing over Gus’s head and tie the back strings under his belly. An artful black marker job later announcing Gus’s status as an Anti-acid Therapy Animal, and I was in business. I even embellished a bit by printing in smaller letters “Please Don’t Pet Me, I’m Working!” beneath his title, for official effect. If you see Gus and me out and about, please stop and say hello (but don’t mention anything about his “vest”).