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Connecting Despite COVID-19: Golden Moments with Family and Friends

Bridgette W. Gottwald

“In an age of research when it is tempting to reduce emotions to biochemical reactions and to rely heavily on the technology of medicine, it is refreshing to find that a person’s health and well-being may be improved by prescribing contact with other living things.”

—Michael J. McCulloch, MD, co-founder of Delta Society (now Pet Partners)

Bridgette Gottwald and therapy dog SullyMy name is Bridgette Gottwald and I am a psychotherapist living and working in Chicago, Illinois. My husband, Ted, and I have been here for about a year and a half. I recently registered as a Pet Partners therapy animal team with our three-year-old English cream golden retriever, Sully. Sully and I are excited to positively impact the physical, social, and emotional lives of those we serve through this organization!

The way our story began with Sully is rather heartwarming. In 2018, when Ted and I went to pick our dog out of the litter, we were deciding between two different ones. Of course they were both adorable, fluffy, white six-pound fur balls, and it was hard to pick between two polar bear cub look-a-likes. There was a special moment in which I knew that Sully was for us. As we were playing with the puppies and getting a read on their personalities, I left and went to the bathroom. The first thing I saw when I came out of the bathroom was Sully, sitting, head cocked, staring at me. I immediately fell in love. While I was in the bathroom, Sully left the area where Ted and the breeder were talking, followed me to the bathroom, and sat right outside of the door and waited for me. In that moment, I knew that this was our dog and that there was something special about him.

Ever since we got him, I have done research, read books about dog psychology, and had him in intensive training. The more he has interacted with others, the more we have learned we aren’t the only ones that think he really is something special.

Therapy dog Sully by a poolSully and I had our Pet Partners team evaluation in May and passed with flying colors! We are thrilled to start volunteering and positively influencing the lives of others. Amidst these unprecedented and challenging times, we unfortunately have not had many opportunities to volunteer, but we have gotten creative and made the best of this difficult situation. Sully has been a big fan of quarantine, and loves having Ted and me around 24/7. Normally, I spend about two hours a day commuting to and from work in the city, and working remotely has given me more time to spend with Sully, and focus on his training, which is an ongoing process.

Sully lives to learn and please people—nothing makes him happier than this, besides squirrels. It’s been really nice for family members and friends to get to know Sully better during this time. Individuals have shared with me their personal experiences with Sully during the time he’s been with us, and I think it speaks volumes about him as a dog, as well as his prospects as a therapy dog.

Therapy dog Sully relaxing

“The psychological and emotional support that Sully offers me organically in times of need is truly something I’ve never had the opportunity of experiencing before. I struggle with anxiety, especially within the home environment, and Sully has an uncanny ability to sense emotional turmoil in humans during times of stress. In moments where it feels like the walls are closing in, I am helpless, not heard, misunderstood…when there’s seemingly nothing in the world that could possibly make me smile or calm down, Sully has been there. I’ve never had to ask or even gesture—it’s as if he just knows. Like an intuition. He approaches me in a stoic yet calm manner, first gently offering his paw placing one or both on my shoulders, knee, hands and/or arms. I immediately feel light within me shine and it somehow suddenly becomes almost hard to not crack a smile despite my tears. Sully, without invitation, is always there in the exact moments during times of need. He does this in a way another human really could not provide. It’s a level and form of comfort that is unique yet vital in moments of panic. He proudly remains with me, calmly, until the anxiety passes. He does this all on his own and it’s entirely self-initiated. Once he did this even when his owner/handler was not present. He warms my heart, and helps me to remember to breathe and compartmentalize my thoughts and emotions that can sometimes feel impossible to get through.”

—Brooke Williams, 31, New York, New York

“Sully is a great dog. In all of the dogs that I have had, and of the many I have ever encountered, I have never felt this way about a dog before. I have absolutely loved my visits with Sully. One night he peacefully came to sit and visit with me as I enjoyed a charcuterie board and glass of wine, while his owner (my grand-daughter-in-law) fixed us dinner. His patience always really impresses me.”

—Nancy Gottwald, 87, Richmond, Virginia

“Sully is a wonderfully calming companion dog. He is amazingly obedient, will sit and stay when told without whining or thrashing about. He loves to be pet and caressed, even on the hottest of days. He always seems to be smiling and eager to please. He has no problems with fingers in his ears or around his mouth…and I have personally experienced this! He’s a great, trustworthy dog around children and people of all ages, and this says a lot about him and his capabilities as a therapy dog…plus, he is beautiful.”

—Dennis Demars, 49, Stuart, Florida

Therapy dog Sully

Fulfilling the role of a therapy dog has always been an amazing fit for Sully—it’s like he was born for this. I think that not having him registered would have been a disservice to the community, to myself, and to Sully’s purpose. As a therapist, I am all about making the human experience more enjoyable, and I truly believe that we are in control of our own happiness and destinies, no matter what challenges or difficulties life throws at us. Together, Sully and I hope to improve human health, mental health, and well-being through the powerful human-animal bond. Sully and I are motivated by connection, compassion, and servant leadership.

Read about a stress relief visit that Bridgette & Sully held for university students in October 2020!