Fur Better Or Furcon: A Pet Therapy Review

Last week the head of TherapyPets.org gave me a call. She wanted to know if we could attend FurCon. Fur what? I quickly googled it to discover that Furcon is an annual convention for celebrating the anthropomorphics genre and furry fandom. Think huge stuffies roaming the Fairmont San Jose and you’ll begin to get the picture.

Turns out that TherapyPets.org was one of three organizations benefiting from the proceeds of several large art auctions.

I often tell people that having a therapy dog is a lot like having a free ticket to places you would otherwise never think of or be allowed to go to. FurCon was the perfect example of this.

The director told me that we would each be asked to speak about our experiences having a therapy pet. Huh. I didn’t think I’d actually have to *do* anything. Damn. But I figured it was a good opportunity to stop for a minute and and review my pet therapy work to date.

Backing up a bit, I realized doing therapy was one of the reasons that got me to really thinking about Greyhound rescue. I wanted to do pet therapy work and Greyhounds tend to make fantastic therapy pets. They’re calm and polite and so tall their heads can graze the edge of a patient’s bed.

About a year and a half ago Stella and I became a certified pet therapy team.

Interestingly, before I really got going with my certification, I honestly wasn’t a true believer in the “healing powers” of pet therapy. But I liked the idea of it (that free ticket thing) and I really wanted to give it a try. Ironically it was during the process of becoming certified that I had one of those moments where you find your heart melting all over the hallway of an acute rehab unit. And I was hooked.

What happened was this: Stella and I were doing a visit in a rehab center. We were being observed and would be given our final critique, the last step in getting certified at a pet therapy team. I was feeling challenged because Stella, reserved as usual was polite but not big on the eye contact or licks. I was working hard to try and get her to engage with patients but the going was slow. We were nearly done and I was bracing for the critique but at the last minute were guided by the director to see one final patient.

Along the way the director told us this patient was blind. When we arrived we peaked in to see a gentleman sitting quietly along with his physical therapist. Suddenly I looked down to see Stella’s tail wagging up a storm. She wanted to meet this man. So away we went.

Unlike every other encounter, Stella clearly was having an instant and strong connection. She went right up to him and nuzzled her long nose into the palm of his hands. The patient, encouraged by his physical therapist, touched her soft ears. Those watching the entire visit were floored by the obvious rapport these two were having, especially in light of Stella’s previous non-reaction to every other patient.

Afterward the physical therapist took us into the hallway where she explained the situation. She told us that her patient was recently blinded in a horrific accident. She then paused for a moment, tears in her eyes, and told us that the connection with Stella was the first he had made since being at the facility for several months.

I was so blown away, first I think by being able in some small way, to help. I then felt this enormous rush of respect for my dog–for her keen sensitivity–for her ability to sense something in that man who had been so hugely traumatized.

I have since gone on to work with Stella at a lock-down psych facility where we visit with long term and for the most part, psychotic patients. Since psych patients can often times move in an unusual and sudden ways and since they can smell quite differently due to medications, it takes an extremely calm and steady dog to do this work.

And while it’s not an easy gig for Stella, she does her job and connections are made. The patients work to gain her trust and this process of working with another being, touching a warm furry body, taking a large animal for a little walk, patients are empowered. And for a brief period of time, these patients can escape the difficult thoughts in their own heads by concentrating on Stella.

But I digress.

Back to FurCon!

The FurCon community is large (a couple thousand attended this year) and, up until today, completely foreign to me. I think these people range from individuals who like to clip on a tail every now and again to those who wish and strive to really look like a certain animal 24/7 (e.g. facial tattoos and implants.) And everything in between.

On the surface, if you cruise through the exhibit hall, it feels like any other conference exhibit hall with related vendors hawking their wears. I actually priced out some clip-on tails ranging from $40 to $70. There were people selling comic books, jewelry, one guy was selling knives and a few furry (would that be “soft?”) porn rags. So yeah, like any other convention but with a kink and a twist.

What I found compelling though was how in-depth the tracks and seminars went. I read somewhere over 130 of them. The various tracks included Fursuiting, Species, Writing and Puppetry. Venture into the details of these tracks and you’ll find the actual seminars including ones called: mustelids (weasel family), rodentia and both a feline and avian panel. There was also seminar on Buddhism and one on Norse spirituality. I found anthropomorphic sculpture, furry ham radio (??), basic and advanced head making.

Was there an adult bent to all this? For sure. I found something called Furoticon, there was an adult dragon panel and the auction that I spoke at was all for adult anthropormphic art.

The landscape, when you really took it in, was quite vast. But honestly, on the day I was there what struck me was that every attendee Stella and I interacted with seemed to genuinely care and appreciate animals and the work we were doing. And it was this common ground and deep appreciation that, for me, made the event quite meaningful.

And so yeah, maybe they’re not exactly mainstream. And maybe they’re not everyone’s cup of tea. But I had a blast attending and getting to know some FurConnies. And bottom line: having raised over $100,000 for various animal related charities, this group isn’t just paying lip service to caring about animal welfare, they’re putting money where their snouts are.


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