Ole Miss grad's animal therapy helps 9/11 survivors

By Carlie Kollath Wells/NEMS Daily Journal

Ole Miss graduate Rachel McPherson didn’t watch the aftermath of 9/11 unfold in newspaper pages or on television screens. She was at ground zero, helping survivors and family members through animal therapy.
“The day 9/11 happened, I knew the dogs had to go there,” the Brooklyn resident said Friday afternoon during a phone interview. “I knew with my entire being that they would make such a difference.”
McPherson is the founder of The Good Dog Foundation, a nonprofit organization that uses professionally trained and supervised volunteer therapy dog teams to aid the healing process in humans.
Eleven years ago, the teams worked with survivors who had lost their jobs and watched their surroundings crumble. Many were dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome, she said.
“People hesitate talking to humans sometimes,” she said. “They don’t know their motives. With animals, it’s unconditional love.”
Later, Good Dog, as she collectively calls the therapeutic teams and the foundation, was part of a float trip to ground zero with families of the victims.
McPherson recalled those days 11 years ago last week while her faithful dog, Fidel, rode in the car with her. Fidel – short for fidelity or loyalty – is the original Good Dog therapy animal. He’s a 15-year-old Papillon and has his own American Red Cross hero award for his work.
McPherson started The Good Dog Foundation 15 years ago, and said animals always have been an important part of her life.
She grew up on a farm in Monticello, a small town near Natchez and McComb.
“We had lots of animals,” said the Ole Miss Hall of Fame inductee.
The animals helped her cope when her older sister was diagnosed with lupus. She also took up horseback lessons.
“I became very involved with animals as a young child,” she said.
She got older, went to Ole Miss and formed a bond with the school that continues today. She has a farm outside Oxford and goes to at least one football game a year.
“I love that part of the country,” she said. “It’s so beautiful.”
Plus, she’s active in the Ole Miss Women’s Council. And, she showcases her Mississippi roots every year at the Mississippi Picnic in the Park – the New York City event she co-founded in the early 1980s.
She moved to New York after graduating Ole Miss in 1974 and pursued a career in the film industry. For one of her projects, she wanted to make a documentary about therapy dog services. She found out during the process that therapy dogs were illegal in New York’s health care facilities. She set out to change the law and she did it.
Good Dog now makes more than 300,000 visits to people in health care, social service, community organizations and schools in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts each year.
Good Dog also participated in therapy sessions on the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.
“It was an honor to go and help fellow Mississippians,” she said.
As Americans reflect today on the events of 9/11, she said she thinks of Bruce Springsteen’s song, “My City of Ruins.”
“It makes me respect all the people and families and victims of 9/11,” she said. “It was a tragic day for our country and New York. It was such a sad experience and I hope it doesn’t happen again.”
carlie.wells@journalinc.com