Therapy Dogs

By Ruth Bird

Nikki and her friend, Hilda

My little neighbor, 10 year old Hope, came over to visit my dog. Hope, such a beautiful name for a beautiful child, is a very grown up 10 year old little girl. She loves my dog, Katie Bear. Katie is a big beautiful Golden Retriever. Her nickname of bear came about because when she scrunched her face it got all wrinkly, making her look like one of these big expensive plush stuffed bears. She is so huggable. Katie is also 14 years old and very sick.

I have been holding off the inevitable last act I must do for her. I have been pushing away my duty to do what must be done, but what cannot be done. Ah, no way, impossible. I cannot do it. Never! Not to my Katie. I carry Katie up and down the stairs. Yes, I carry my Golden. I know soon I must do this terrible duty, but not now, not today.or so I thought. Life changed for me this day because wisdom came and visited me in the guise of a young child. Hope came, looked at my Katie and said "Sonja, your Katie, my friend looks so sad today, doesn't she?" Well that did it. I knew I must do what no one should ever have to do. Katie was "leader" of the gang. She was friendship, love, compassion and kindness all rolled into one "golden-bear". Yes, my other dogs followed in her pawsteps. She did not leave this world without leaving her traces behind. She left us many wonderful "Golden Memories". My own golden nuggets I call them.

That was 2 ½ years ago. Today I hear.

"Benny, Benny, come here Benny!" These are sweet words in my ears. This call comes from Don, Benny's friend. Don is a veteran; he has lost both of his legs in the war but sits proudly in his chair. Benny is his buddy, my black lab.

Hi, my name is Sonja, and I am the owner of three dogs. Two of my dogs are therapy visiting dogs and they bring tremendous joy to the "friends" we visit. "Friends" are what we call the residents of a home that look forward to the visit of a therapy dog. Let me tell you a little bit about these two dogs.

Above Photo: Nikki and her friend, Hilda

Benny & Nikki

Benny, my black lab, is about 6 years old now. Benny is a wonderful dog (even though he likes to steal my pillows). He loves going to visit our friends in the home. His tail is like a rotator as soon as we come near our first "friend". Clearly this is where he loves to be. Actually, this is where he belongs. He is gentle, good natured and full of love and affection. And, he is always hungry..yup, a true lab, he is always hungry. Of course the residents love to feed him cookies. He truly makes their day brighter and better. "O boy, he is so soft", or "Wow, he looks so good." These are comments I often hear.

Then there is Nikki, my 2 year golden puppy. I call all my dogs "puppy". Nikki is a typical 2 year Golden. She is full of life. She keeps me hopping. And, just like Benny, she brings pure gold to our friends. Nikki was certified as a therapy dog just after she became one year old. Nikki visits in a home called "Fields of Gold Manor".

Above Photo: Benny & Nikki

On my fourth visit with Nikki to the home, the director, Dorothy, noticed that one of the residents was watching Nikki closely out of the corner of her eye. Dorothy whispered to me "Why don't you go over and show her Nikki". Well, I wasn't really too thrilled at the prospect. I have observed this patient, Helga, during the last three visits. She is mean. Really! She lies in her chair; she is old with grey hair and a constant scowl on her face. Anyone who comes near her or tries to talk with her gets a tongue lashing. So I kept away from her. And now, Dorothy asked me to take Nikki to her.

It's a good thing that dogs do not have preconceived ideas like we do. Nikki stood beside her chair, leaning in, anxious to visit. The lady slowly looked down at Nikki, and the biggest smile came over her face. She was instantly transformed from an old lady with grey hair into a warm friendly looking person. "Oh, my baby, my beautiful looking dog" she crooned. "How beautiful you are, and so soft" she whispered. Nikki must have sensed what was happening because she was calm and very still, leaning into the chair even more. She gave Helga the "Nikki look". Actually, the best way to describe this look is that it is just like "Diana's famous look"; her head bent down slightly, her eyes looking up at you, full of love and warmth and acceptance.

"I had a dog just like you once", "I miss her so much, I really loved my dog" Helga stroked Nikki speaking only to her.

"Ask her some questions" Dorothy nudged me, "See if she will talk with you"

"Helga, what was the name of your dog?" I asked quietly, not wanting to disturb her thoughts.

"Maxie." "I loved my Maxie so much but he is not here any more" tears run down her cheeks as she stokes Nikki. This is enough for me to take in one day. I ask one more question.

"Helga, would you like me to bring Nikki back to visit with you?"

"O yes! Yes! Please, that would be so nice, I love Nikki" "I have no one else; I am all alone you know."

So now we visit with Helga regularly. Helga has quite a sense of humor, and we all enjoy the time we spend together. What a happy ending this is. It doesn't always happen that way.

This brings me to another experience. One I wish I could forget or go back in time and change. I can do neither. I was visiting with Benny in the "Home on the Hill". Linda, the director, had asked me to go visit with Frank, a new resident just moved in the day before. Benny and I walked into the room and the first thing I noticed was a wall covered in framed pictures of Golden Retrievers. They were everywhere. Frank was lying on the bed; the ordeal of moving into his new home had worn him out. He got up when he saw us. He looked handsome, tall with light grey hair and sparkling eyes despite his condition.

"You brought a dog" "Oh, isn't this so nice" "I have a Golden, you know".

"Yes, I see that" I smile at him. "These must be pictures of your precious Golden?"

"Yes, my baby is living with my sister now, in Chatogway, about 4 hours from here" "I miss her so much." He gently starts to stroke Benny. "I know my sister looks after my Molly." He tries to be brave, but breaks into tears, leaning into Benny, his face snuggled into Benny's shoulder. "O thank you so much for bringing Benny to see me, I just miss my Molly so much, this is so wonderful." "Will you come again" he pleads with me.

"Of course I will" "Benny wants to see you again too, we will be back soon"

Frank had a very hard time adjusting to his new home. His biggest joy was always when Benny came. My, he got excited, happy, even thrilled. Only dog lovers can understand this fully. Frank was not feeling good today. "When will you bring Benny next time?" he asks with a certain fear in his voice. "Soon, I will bring him soon" I gently take his hand before we leave.

Well, so far this year it has been an extremely busy summer for me. Unfortunately, with work demanding more and more of my time, and with home issues demanding more and more of my time, my volunteering has lapsed this summer. This has created a void in me. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

After my short "sabbatical" I went back last Saturday night. This was an unscheduled visit. I could have cried. Everyone was so very happy to see Benny again (not me so much). We had a "Benny" party in the lobby.

What a wonderful time my Benny had. Of course he did! Everyone was petting him and talking to him. Wow, he was being treated like royalty

It was just great to see this joy. We all talked and laughed and joked. Everyone talked about their summer, how they were doing, what was going on in their own world. I felt better then I had for a long time. My new resolve is to go back to my weekly visits no matter how busy I am. I do not want to miss out on these opportunities anymore.

Before going home, I took Benny up to see Frank. I was so looking forward to see Frank's joy at seeing Benny. Heck, I had even taken a picture of Benny and given it to him the last time I saw him. Just a little extra joy I wanted to pass on.

We walked into the familiar room.it was empty. No pictures, no clothes. Bed made. I felt the blood drain from my face. I even started to shake a bit. I thought "no way"; what I am thinking cannot be. I searched for Frank's nurse. "Lilly, where is Frank?"

Lilly looks at me sadly, she knows he meant a lot to me. "Frank died last week." "They found him in the morning. He passed away gently during the night"

"O wait, she says, I have something for you." She went to her nurse's station and came back with the picture of Benny that I had given to Frank. " When we found him he was holding this picture close to his heart", "and I thought you might want it back"

I slowly turned around once more, Benny at my side. I looked at the empty bed, the wall that should have been covered with pictures. I felt the emptiness deeper then I had felt anything for a long time. I do not ever want to be reminded of my mistake. The mistake of a promise made, and not kept. I knew exactly how Frank felt. Lonely, forgotten, even his new friend Benny, did not come as promised. He died alone reaching out for a friend that could have been there, but was not. I cried for Frank, for his loneliness, and for me.

I would like to tell you of another story. This story is not about me or my dogs, but a fellow therapy worker. This is a very touching tale of a faithful friend being there for another friend.

I listen to a radio station that once a year has a big blitz to collect money for the Sick Children's Hospital in our city. They set up a remote station right there in the hospital lobby for three days and interview parents and kids that have been touched by this hospital. The music plays in the background as the kids, parents, doctors and nurses tell their stories.

This year the radio station also interviewed a lady with her therapy dog. The dog is a regular volunteer in this hospital. The lady was telling us that one day a young child, about 5 years old was dying. Mommy "I want my doggie with me", please, "I want my doggie here." And of course, the dog did come, after cutting through some red tape to be allowed into the room with this child. The child died with the dog at her side.

When I heard this interview taking place while the dog was being petted by the interviewer, I couldn't stop crying. Everyone was crying. What a moment.

Photo Right: Nikki, Catherine & Benny

There are also funny moments. I mean you mix people and dogs and there is bound to be humor.

I can remember one winter, when the neighborhood kids were not so happy with my Golden Retriever. My Katie Bear, who is not with me anymore, got loose. And, full speed ahead, she ran down the street, into the front yard of a home day care centre. There she spotted a snowman, grabbed the carrot nose, and ran back home with it. These are the times when I should have had my camera. The little ones were not impressed at all, they cried "The dog took the snowman's nose," "Our snowman doesn't have a nose anymore."

That very same Katie, while we were visiting with our senior friends, very quietly stuck her head deep into one senior's purse and stole her muffin. That senior was not impressed either. "Your dog stole my muffin" she yelled, shaking her finger at me.

Ah, those golden moments.

Pictured below: My blind Dukie

My Blind Dukie

Dog Therapy Visiting has been a passion of mine for 5 years. I have 3 dogs, 2 black labs and 1 golden retriever.

I first became involved in this work when visiting a friend in the hospital. A beautiful Golden Retriever silently walked into the room and instantly brought comfort. That was Tasha. Tasha and her owner became my mentors.

I visit regularly at 2 senior homes, with my black lab and my golden retriever. My third dog is blind, although he does not seem to realize this.

Pet health care, nutrition and dog training are of great concern to me, and I promote all three.

My name is Ruth Bird and my three dogs are, Dukie, Benny and Nikki. I also have a husband, Chris. Chris is battling the monster, MS. The dogs are wonderful company for him.

My therapy page: www.mimfreedom.com/dogtherapy.htm

My contact page: www.mimfreedom.com/contactme.htm