When life gets tough: dog

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Denise Fuhrmann believes dogs can help people feel better as much as—or even more than—humans can.

The psychiatric nurse practitioner frequently observed this in her psychotherapy and therapeutic touch practices, and it definitely applies in her private life, as well. That’s been especially true over the past summer, as Fuhrmann, who lives in Kennebunkport, has been recovering from knee-replacement surgeries on both knees.

“These dogs mean I’ve had to get up!” she says, referring to Pearl, age 7, a red-fox Lab; Olive Louise, 5, a black Lab; Gracie Claire, 3, a white Lab; and Gracie’s niece, Isabel Rose, a 2-year-old white Lab—each of whom have forced her to stay active during her recovery. “They’ve gotten me up in the morning, given me kisses in bed and said, ‘Come on, Mommy! Let’s go.’”

Fuhrmann counted on them to stroll with her when she was using her walker, keep her company as she weaned herself off the device and to keep her spirits up.

She’s seen firsthand and personally this summer how powerfully important dogs can be with helping people heal. That’s something she’s observed for years in her careers. Fuhrmann now does telepsychiatry work—seeing patients remotely—for MaineHealth in Biddeford, doing psychiatric evaluations, diagnoses and medication management. She also does similar work part time remotely for a Tennessee company. At 69, she “doesn’t see retiring because I love what I do so much.”

Dogs play a big role in her enjoyment of life—and work, in particular. “The dogs sometimes come to work, and patients will see them come into the room. When the dogs look at them on the monitor, it’s very calming. And when people see you with a dog, they also realize you’re a real person. A caring person. Dogs calm me down and calm them down. They change the whole energy in a room. It’s just calming and peaceful to have dogs around.”

Fuhrmann has a soft spot for Labs, which have “very gentle spirits,” but she and her husband Calvin, an internal specialist and pulmonologist, have had a variety of canine friends over the years, including many rescue dogs. Not surprisingly, their two adult daughters are big dog enthusiasts, too.

“We’ve had dogs all 47 years of married life—as few as one and as many as five. Sometimes it’s been mass bedlam with all the dogs. Our children grew up having tails wagging in their faces since the get-go. For me, I don’t think a home is really a home without a dog. They’ve just always been part of who we are as a family,” says Fuhrmann, noting that all of their dogs have been named for deceased relatives, in keeping with the family’s Jewish traditions.

“We’ve always had at least one. But then you know he needs a playmate, so you need two. And then you don’t have that color, so it’s three. You get the idea.”

Fuhrmann’s first dog was a cocker spaniel when she was 8.  After her mother passed away when she was 9, Fuhrmann went to live with her aunt and uncle, who had a miniature schnauzer—not the cuddliest breed but “it was just nice to have a dog, and I walked that dog a lot.” Though she prefers more laid-back, less hyper breeds, Fuhrmann loves all dogs.

“I truly believe that ‘dog’ is ‘God’ spelled backwards. When life gets tough, their energy and their spirits calm you and make you happy. You can’t purchase that. Our dogs have helped us get through the tough times,” she says. “They don’t care if you have cancer, purple hair or no hair. They’re still going to give you kisses and let you know you’re OK—or at least that you’re going to be OK. You can’t help but smile when you’re with a dog. And when you smile, your energy changes, and that can change your focus and move you out of your misery.”

Being with dogs is therapeutic in myriad ways, according to Fuhrmann.

“If you’re single and you come home from work, you know someone is there for you. You have someone who loves you. It’s great for anyone to get out and walk with dogs, but especially so for older people. I’ve taken trained dogs into assisted living places, and they’ve really helped the residents greatly. They’re also wonderful for helping people meet their neighbors and connecting. They help start conversations. When we go to the beach, people always stop and ask what kind of dogs we have, and it just gets us talking.”

A dog is always there to listen, too, Fuhrmann says. “I can relax with a dog, and yes, I talk to them. About this and that. I’ll ask my dog what she thinks about something. It’s sometimes my way of working things out.”

Patricia McCarthy is a longtime editor. She has three daughters, lives in Cape Elizabeth, and also has a photography business (patriciamccarthy.com).

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