How This Rescue Became a Pet Therapy Dog
Peg Shippert wasn’t looking for rescue dogs when she met Nova. In fact, adopting a dog wasn’t in the immediate plans for her family at all. It wasn’t until Shippert’s babysitter started fostering Nova that the family got to meet the sweet two-year-old dog. “She brought Nova around a couple of times, and we immediately fell in love,” says Shippert. “It took us two weeks to decide to actually adopt her, since we weren’t thinking we were looking for a dog to adopt!”
That was back in January 2015, and out of all the rescue dogs that could have found them, Nova was the perfect one for Shippert’s family. After a “trial weekend” to make sure everybody got along, Nova just never left.
Nova’s Rough History
Little is known about Nova’s past. This dog rescue story began when Rez Dawg Rescue found Nova as a stray, wandering around on a reservation in New Mexico. “We know that she was owned before, because she had already been spayed,” says Shippert. “Sad story: we didn’t know she had already been spayed until we took her in to be spayed and the doctor opened her up and found that everything was already removed—poor thing.”
Nova also seemed to do really well around young children, so Shippert thinks she probably had a family at some point. But by the time she was found in the reservation, Nova was in pretty sad physical shape and needed deworming and medical care. “When we’d had her for about three months, she started limping, so we took her to our vet,” Shippert says. “She got an X-ray, which showed a bullet in her knee! I hate to think of everything she might have been through before she was with us.”
Nova ended up having surgery on that knee ligament (unrelated to the bullet) in March of 2015, and they also removed the bullet at that point.
Many rescue dogs have rough histories, and perhaps another reminder is the fact that Nova was very afraid of men when Shippert first took her in. “I think she must have been kicked a lot, as she would yelp and run away whenever anyone kicked a soccer ball or threw anything in her vicinity,” Shippert says. “Retrieving balls is definitely not her thing.”
It took a year of love and reassurance to get Nova over her fear of sudden movements. “Eventually, she learned to trust that we were not going to kick or hit her,” Shippert says. “But still today, sometimes I’ll reach out to pet her with my foot, forgetting that it might scare her, and she’ll jump back.”
While Shippert always apologizes for startling her and gives her extra loving in those moments, Nova’s training also helped a lot. “I believe that the training we did with Nova helped her overcome a lot of her fears.” Shippert says. “She seems to feel more comfortable when she knows what we want her to do; like most people, having some control is very soothing for dogs.”
A New Chapter
Although Nova had a lot of fears when Shippert first adopted her, she was always extremely friendly, especially with kids. In fact, Shippert says it was very clear that she wanted to know what people wanted from her, and was super easy to train. “Once she settled into our family and started to feel more secure in us, I could see her naturally calm and friendly personality blossom,” says Shippert. “That’s when I started thinking she might do really well with my clients.”
Shippert is a Licensed Professional Counselor who works primarily with girls and women dealing with the trauma of rape, and the more she thought about the idea of including pet therapy in her sessions, the more it made sense. “I’d known about other trauma therapists who worked with therapy dogs, and could tell she’d handle it well and probably love all of the attention,” says Shippert.
Soon after, Nova got certified through Professional Therapy Dogs of Colorado and is now a regular face in Shippert’s office. “She has learned that the word ‘work’ means we’re going to see clients, and she does a happy dance whenever she hears it,” says Shippert.
In most pet therapy sessions, Nova simply hangs out on the couch with clients and gets petted. “It’s so soothing to pet a gentle dog, and it’s a great way to help my clients regulate their nervous systems as we talk about difficult things,” Shippert says. Shippert also uses Nova’s dog rescue story to talk about past trauma, how it can affect you and what can help you during the recovery process. “And most importantly, it shows how her triggers and her history are not her fault, and that they don’t make her any less valuable to my family,” Shippert adds.
Aside from pet therapy, Nova also goes along to local high schools when Shippert gives presentations about sexual assault and consent. “It’s difficult material to talk about with teenagers, and Nova really helps break the ice,” Shippert explains. “People seem to get it when we talk about dogs in a way that sometimes isn’t as obvious when we’re talking about people.”
Nova loves all the attention she gets at school, and it’s obvious she’s a natural at it. “She’s a minor celebrity at some schools,” says Shippert. “They don’t remember who I am at all, but they know her.”
Nova’s training has helped her relax and has shown Shippert how to identify signs of stress in her furry companion. “The only times I’ve seen her get stressed were when I first started bringing her in to my office, and tried to do too many sessions in a row, or over her dinnertime,” says Shippert. “I’ve learned to pace and time her involvement at my work, and let my clients know that she can’t always be there.”
It’s Not All Work
Just because Nova takes her pet therapy job seriously doesn’t mean she doesn’t know how to enjoy life outside of the office. While Nova has a pretty low-key life that involves mostly playing with her canine buddies in the neighborhood, she also likes to hike. “She’s well-trained at this point, and she almost never chases wildlife anymore,” Shippert says. “Her job at home is to chase cats and squirrels out of the backyard (she loves this job), and to clean up kitchen spills off the floor—but only when we tell her to!”
She also gets lots of belly rubs, and as much snuggling as possible. “Her favorite time at home is when I sit on the floor to fold laundry,” Shippert says. “She puts her head in my lap, and is in heaven for as long as it lasts.”
Diana Bocco is a full-time writer and adventurer who has written for National Geographic, DiscoveryChannel.com, Yahoo! and Marie Claire. Diana has lived in five countries and taken her rescued dogs along to each one of them.