Magnus the Therapy Dog is a yellow labrador retriever with about 3.5 million followers across TikTok and Instagram, making him one of the world’s most famous therapy dogs. Originally bred to be a service dog for the blind, he had a doggie career change to being more of an emotional support animal and therapy dog.
We talked to Magnus’ owner, Brian Benson, whose motto is “Life is better with a dog.”
What was your first exposure to pet therapy? What was Magnus’ transition/ training to be a therapy dog like?
Prior to having Magnus I never had any exposure to pet therapy at all, except from what I have seen online or on TV. When we first adopted Magnus, he was only supposed to be a family pet, not a working dog.
Unfortunately, my oldest daughter Riley was diagnosed with severe juvenile arthritis when she was 8 years old. Part of her treatment regime was me giving her weekly, and sometimes daily, injections at home. The entire process was extremely traumatic for Riley, causing her to get very anxious and upset. This was the catalyst for Magnus becoming a therapy dog.
We adopted Magnus when he was 1.5 years old and Riley was 11 years old. When we adopted Magnus, he didn’t listen to any commands we gave him, and it was almost like getting an 8-week-old puppy. There was no connection yet between Magnus and the family. It was a new dog, in a new house, with new people.
However, even with no training or bond with Magnus, when I would have to give Riley her shots, Magnus immediately took stock of the situation, realized that a person was in distress and needed comforting, and immediately went into action. As my daughter was hysterically crying, Magnus, on his own, walked over to her and laid by her side, calming her down. Riley’s breath slowed down, the tears seemed to stop, and she was much more relaxed.
This made me realize that Magnus was meant for way more than being “just a family pet.” His gifts needed to be shared with others. I soon looked into dog therapy organizations in my area to see what was involved.
By the time I started his therapy certification course, I had already trained Magnus myself to be locked down with all of the basic commands, plus many, many tricks. I had taken 3 months off from work when I adopted Magnus to make sure I would be able to have him comfortable and well-behaved in any scenario.
This one-on-one time with him is what created the foundation that everything since has been built upon. Being that I had already spent so much time working with Magnus on my own, the certification course was a breeze for Magnus and he passed with flying colors.
What is the purpose of pet therapy? What are the pros for humans and for dogs?
Magnus and I have been a pet therapy team since Feb. 2018, and have visited both terminally and critically ill children and adults in hospitals, schools for children with emotional issues and learning disabilities, community crisis centers, and nursing homes. As a pet therapy team, we advance the physical, emotional, and social well-being of others through the use of animal-assisted interactions. We try to help people as they heal from physical and mental health conditions.
The impact Magnus has had on the people he has visited is clear. Regardless of what type of mood or “state” you are in prior to a visit with Magnus, everyone we have come across in our visits, from patients to hospital staff to family members, is always the same. They feel a sense of comfort, they look a bit more relaxed, and they always have a smile on their faces.
For Magnus, the same is also true. Even though it is in fact hard work being a therapy dog because you always need to be super well behaved, and listen to any and all commands given, therapy dogs by nature love to interact with people and be social. Magnus is no exception, and any chance he gets to meet a new person, interact with them, is when he truly shines and is the happiest. Magnus was absolutely born for this type of work.
What are your favorite memories from pet therapy experiences with Magnus?
This is a tough one because they are all special in their own unique way. I can highlight a few:
Our very first therapy visit was to a hospital, and prior to going, I had no idea what area of the hospital I was being sent to. It turned out that I was being sent to the floor for patients with palliative care. All of these patients had either some form of cancer or serious heart disease.
On the visit, the very first patient I saw was an elderly lady. Her sister walked me down the hall to her sister’s room. She explained to me that her sister, in her 80s, had Stage 4 cancer and was told she only had a few days left to live. I went into the room with Magnus and we visited for a while, chatting, showing her Magnus’ tricks, etc. When we left, the sister walked us out and said, “This is the first time my sister has smiled in weeks. Thank you for this gift.”
Another visit was with a young woman in the hospital; also in palliative care. But unlike every other patient Magnus and I have ever visited, she was not hooked up to wires and machines. While she was chatting and playing with Magnus, she asked if we could “go for a walk.” Since she wasn’t connected to any machines, so I said, “Sure, where can we go?” We then just did laps around her hospital floor, and to this day, I have never seen a single person genuinely so happy, and she had the biggest smile on her face.
Another favorite of mine was when we went to a school for children with emotional issues and learning disabilities. We were in a room with teenage boys. All of them were hanging out, playing with Magnus while he performed tricks.
But there was one boy, who was around 16 years old, off by himself in the corner. I asked if he wanted to pet Magnus, and the teacher said that the boy, who had severe autism, was deathly afraid of dogs. His fear was not because of any incident, just a fear that he developed.
I tried several techniques to try and make the boy more comfortable in order to help him feel safe interacting with Magnus. First, I had Magnus turn around so his face (and teeth) were facing away from the boy. This did not work. Then I showed him how I can hold a small treat in my mouth and Magnus will take the treat from me, without hurting me. Still, the boy wasn’t convinced.
My last effort was the one. I took a treat and placed it between my pointer and thumb. I told Magnus to take the treat but I didn’t let go of the treat. After several seconds with my fingers in Magnus’ mouth, I told Magnus to leave it, and when I removed my fingers, they and the treat were all intact.
The terrified boy was no longer scared and asked if he could give Magnus a treat, then another and another, etc. The teacher was shocked and said this was one of the biggest breakthroughs with this child that the school had ever seen.
It’s moments like these that are why Magnus and I volunteer as a pet therapy team. It’s our way to give back and pay it forward.