The woman’s hand stroked Ben’s silver fur, going up and down his back several times. The Labrador retriever leaned his head against the Gateway Garden resident’s leg, almost sensing that she needed to pet him.
She continued and smiled at Ben’s owner, Kay Neslage.
“I need another one for my other hand,” the woman said.
Neslage understood. Dogs make great companions. They can lift people’s spirits, give them hope, lend an ear, and even motivate them to walk. For almost 26 years, Neslage and her therapy canines — first Arnie, then Jack, and now Ben — have been helping people.
“When a dog comes into a room, the tension goes away. You can feel it,” Neslage said. “It’s been proven that dogs can lower stress, reduce anxiety. When I take (Ben) to visit the retirement center, or anywhere else, when he goes in, you can see the change in people. It’s invigorating and motivating.”
In fact, all three of Neslage’s therapy dogs have been rescues, starting with Arnie, who her son, Scott, found on the side of the road outside of Idalou, Texas. If you’re a golfer, you might have noticed a pattern in the names Arnie, Jack, and Ben — Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Ben Crenshaw.
Arnie would curl up next to Scott’s golf bags, so it seemed natural to name him for a golfer, and the trend continued.
When Arnie became part of the Neslage family, around 1995, pet therapy was fairly new. At the time, Kay Neslage was a marketing director and administrator for a Lubbock-area hospital. She attended a seminar at Warm Springs Rehabilitation in San Antonio, where one of the presentations featured a therapy dog. When she returned to work, she asked if anyone on staff was interested in pet therapy training with their dog.
She had no takers, so Neslage and her son enrolled with Arnie.
“And we began breaking down barriers,” she said. “You have to understand, pet therapy wasn’t understood or accepted like it is today.”
She recalled one little boy who had been severely injured in an irrigation equipment accident. After convincing the doctor, Neslage and Arnie visited the boy.
“He just lit up when Arnie walked in,” she said.
Neslage and Arnie began working with children suffering from neuro-physical issues who often had to relearn how to walk. With the therapist’s approval, Neslage would place Arnie down the hall from the child.
“A child would see Arnie down the hall and would walk to him,” she said. “They’re the motivation, they’re the catalyst. Having a dog there, well, it takes the ‘therapy’ out of therapy.”
If there’s a well-known therapy dog in the Highland Lakes, it’s Mabel from the Phoenix Center, which provides mental healthcare to children and their families through therapy and educational programs.
The specially-trained Labrador retriever joined the center about five years ago as a courthouse dog. She would accompany traumatized children when they testified in court or during other proceedings.
Mabel was trained by Canine Companions for Independence before being partnered with Sarah Garrett, the Phoenix Center’s founder and executive director. The dog has become an integral part of the center’s mission.
During a recent suicide assessment of a child, Mabel scooted up next to him with no prompting from the therapist. The child petted Mabel, and things began to change in his demeanor.
“He was so calm there as he petted Mabel,” Garrett said. “It was incredible. She was so helpful, and I don’t know if the session would have gone as well as it did had Mabel not been there.”
Throughout Mabel’s tenure at the Phoenix Center, she’s touched the lives of countless children and even adult family members. Garrett pointed out that many children feel isolated, even more so during the pandemic, and have struggled with making connections. Or, they simply have trust issues.
Mabel can nudge her way through those barriers.
“She knows when kids need her,” Garrett said.
Having Mabel around the office is a lift to staff as well because sometimes they need a furry hug.
The Neslages’ canines are also more than therapy dogs. Each summer prior to the pandemic, Kay, Tom, and Ben traveled to the Appalachian Mountains in Highland, North Carolina. While there, Kay and Ben became regulars at the local library, where the dog was a reading buddy to the children.
He sat with the kids as they read. Some struggled with literacy and felt self-conscious, but Ben offered a non-judgmental ear.
“He doesn’t take the place of a reading instructor, but he enhances the instruction,” Neslage said.
She pointed out that dogs and other pets and domestic animals offer their owners immense benefits through their companionship.
“There are so many different types and categories of dogs, not just breeds, but what they’re like,” Neslage said. “The dogs we have had fit our lifestyle and needs. And that’s the key: finding a dog that matches your lifestyle.”
A great thing about adopting through an organization such as Highland Lakes Canine Rescue is that staff and volunteers work hard to match dogs with people. They get to know the adopters, their lifestyles, and needs.
“Ben came out and stayed with us several days to see how he’d do here. We wanted to see how he’d be with our grandkids and with the other dogs in the neighborhood,” Neslage said. “They strive to match the dog to the proper owner.”
While many prospective adopters look for cute puppies or younger dogs, Neslage said not to overlook older ones. When Ben joined the Neslage household on Jan. 20, 2016, he was 5½ years old.
“He’s 10½ now, and look at all he’s been able to do,” she said.
When dealing with some of the not-so-great things that come with dog ownership, such as shedding, Neslage remembers the great things that dogs do and sees excessive canine hair in a new way.
“It’s not dog hair,” she said, “it’s angel dust.”