A Canine Chorus

I didn’t want to trivialize the devastating southern California wildfires by putting up my post today, but figured that we could all use a touch of positivity. Last Sunday about twenty teams from the People Animal Connection met at UCLA Medical Center for our annual caroling event. The spirit of the group is beautiful but as far as singing, and I don’t think I’ll be offending anyone, we suck. Hey, we’re not the PAC singers. Fortunately, the Scattertones, a student acapella group, joined us so we not only looked good, we sounded fabulous.

And you can only imagine how excited I was to have another excuse to decorate the Doods. At Halloween when we doggy dyed Gus purple and gold to meet the Lakers, I asked Marsha the groomer to be sure she had red and green for the holidays. Her thirteen year old son Ryan, their official colorist, was on the job again and outdid himself. Elbee and Gus looked like walking Christmas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we moved through the halls caroling, some of us lip-synching next to more talented singers, we brought holiday cheer all over the hospital. Families and staff were calling out seasons greetings. Patients were waving us into their rooms.

Maybe it was the red, white and green effect but Elbee and Gus did so many mini visits we kept losing our group. A patient, who had been resting quietly in his bed, saw them and burst out laughing. A woman standing in the doorway of her room asked if she could take their picture to show to her ex-husband. She explained that he was in a different hospital and they were competing to see which place had better therapy dogs!

ELBEE As if!

Another woman jumped out of her bed when she saw our group. She told us that the dogs had made her day and that she felt so much better. A few minutes later, as some of us were waiting by the elevator, she practically came running down the hall. With a huge grin on her face, she threw our her arms and proclaimed, “Im healed!”

Some of the interactions were much quieter. There was a shy, seemingly special needs little boy, who suddenly began petting the dogs and chatting. He retreated into his room for a moment but came right back out because he wanted a photo with them.

When we first arrived at UCLA, a young dad who was in the lobby asked if we could come up to visit his daughter. She’d gotten some bad news but she loved dogs so he thought they would help. Later in the morning when we reached her room, the dad was in there alone. His daughter had been taken to the ICU. He was still so appreciative that we’d stopped in and took a photo of Elbee and Gus to share with her.

As many times as I’ve taken part in the caroling. I never cease to be amazed at the joy it brings to so many people. Words don’t seem adequate to capture the mood and the spirit. I have also learned that although they may not sing, the dogs have the purest, sweetest voices of all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dogs…Better than Moisturizer?

I think I have some sort of strange gift.

A few weeks ago I started jotting down ideas for this post about how dogs help with aging. Then, maybe by coincidence, I saw a piece on the NBC news that dealt with that exact topic. By the way, it was as if they’d read my notes.

After that there was the crossword puzzle, another sign. I was doing the New York Times crossword puzzle and the clue was, “Crisis of the Middle Ages.” The answer was “sag.”

ELBEE NBC read her notes? Seriously? But kudos for not reminding us that she does the puzzle in pen.

 

As if that’s not enough, back in January I wrote a post called “Rock On” because I was seeing so many man made rock formations on the trails. Since then, guess how many I’ve seen…none.  See, I’m putting something into the universe.

ELBEE Okay, I admit Pack Leader is telling the truth. I not only saw the rock formations, it’s been months since I’ve peed on one.

 

Back to aging. Did you know that it’s no longer politically correct to call it anti-aging? I guess that implies it’s a bad thing, rather than something we should accept and try to do gracefully.

GUS I’m sorry but I’m so confused.

 

My conclusion, and one that was backed up by the news report, is that dogs definitely help with the aging process. From a purely physical perspective, they keep you active. You’re much more likely to take a walk if your dog is standing by the door waiting to exercise. To me there is nothing more restorative and that keeps me in better shape than heading into the mountains with the Doods.

It almost makes up for the younger hikers who comment, “Wow, you’re strong,” and let the phrase, “for your age” hang in the air. There’s even one guy who calls me “ma’am.”

Aging can come with it’s own emotional issues. Oops am I oversharing? There’s nothing like the unconditional love and support of a dog to help you cope. No one has ever been as happy to see me when I get home as the Doods, yes, even Elbee. That moment of pure joyful greeting lets you put everything aside for an instant.

Dogs also offer companionship and comfort. Who else would listen to all of your concerns and your opinions without judging or offering their own? Who else can make problems disappear simply by sitting at your side?

Even the responsibility for their constant care, training and nurturing is important. Mentally dogs can keep you on your toes. Try forgetting to feed them and see what happens.

Having therapy dogs is really my true gift, other than the one about putting things out into the universe. At this stage in my life, they have given me a passion for what I’m doing and the ability to make a difference. When we walk into the hospital, I never know what little miracle or what special quiet moment I’ll have the privilege of witnessing. Now if the Doods could only do something about the grey hair and wrinkles!

 

 

 

 

 

Pre-cooked Turkey and Other Things I’m Grateful For

This year we celebrated casual Thanksgiving with just the immediate family and the dogs. I am appreciative of so much but I want to overshare some of the things that made this particular holiday special for me. Feel free to judge.

  • Shout out to Gelson’s for their pre-cooked turkey. It was delicious and also saved me from having to deal with a raw turkey and all of those terrifying things you have to pull out before cooking.
  • My stuffing and praline sweet potatoes and my granddaughter Samantha’s cheese bread were so good that no one thought about the pre-cooked turkey. Did you ever realize how little credit you get for cooking a turkey?

ELBEE Pack Leader really has issues with that turkey. Wonder if it’s a childhood thing.

 

 

  • Four year old Bella, the one who calls me “Grandma with the dogs,” was much braver with Elbee, going so far as to pet and even brush him. Gus is small and cute so has never been a problem. Riley our Golden is fourteen and too old to be scary but she used to view Elbee like Cujo. The jury is still out for her younger brother.
Elbee with cousins Samantha and Bella
Bella and Gus, her favorite

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Let’s hear it for paper plates. I know it is totally tacky but no one had to do dishes.
  • My thirteen year old grandson Ryan informed me I should be glad that at his age he still likes to talk to me. We even fist bumped.
  • Ryan and Samantha’s adorable Havanese JoJo blended in with our pack. I spent the first hour with Elbee leashed to me but then all was good.

ELBEE That was humiliating!

  • I love this photo of my son-in-law Dan and the dogs watching football. I am also happy that I got to share it here. Jennifer, the lawyer daughter, threatened to sue, but Dan, also a lawyer, gave me permission to use it.

  • Speaking of photos, the UCLA People Animal Connection is doing a calendar. Guess who’s November? And yes, I am still a stage mother.

 

 

 

 

 

GUS I know I’m a good sport but I didn’t realize those were turkey legs on my head. I may need to go back into therapy.

ELBEE OMG I just saw this other picture. Gus looks like Yoda.

  • On a more serious note, I am grateful for a visit to a sixteen year old patient at Providence Tarzana on the day after Thanksgiving. As soon as the Doods walked into her room she jumped up from her bed and dropped onto the floor next to them. The mom, almost in tears, said, “I can’t believe she got up. We haven’t been able to get her to move.” Then the mom confessed that she was standing on the far side of the room because she was terrified of dogs. When I asked if she wanted us to leave, she replied, “Absolutely not. My daughter is up and smiling.”
  • Above all, having lost my parents and brother long ago, I am so deeply grateful for all of the chaos, love and caring that is my family.

 

 

A Dinner with Dog Lovers

Recently I had dinner with a few people who have been part of the People Animal Connection for years. To say we are all dog lovers is an understatement. I’d go so far as to say that we all enjoy O.D.D., obsessive dog disorder, a condition that I wrote about in my post, OMG I have O.D.D. (3/08/16). We reminisced, shared dog stories and photos. Not one of us shared a photo of a human…family member or otherwise. I didn’t even bring up the grandchildren

ELBEE I’m sure she mentioned me. My ears were burning. I wonder why I wasn’t invited.

As I looked at everyone around the table, it was breathtaking to think about what their dogs had accomplished and how Charley had interacted with each of them. They had worked so many events together. Roger’s Golden Retriever Logan was even the neutral dog at Charley’s last testing. A few of the dogs are gone now, but their legacy is timeless.

We were at the restaurant to visit with Jack Barron, who was in town from Oregon. Jack was a mentor to each of us. If I’m a 10 on the O.D.D. scale, Jack is off the chart.  He lives and breathes dog therapy which is what makes him such an incredible guiding force. I owe him a debt of gratitude for bringing me into that world.

I first met Jack over twelve years ago when I attended the Pet Partners workshop that would change my life. At the end of that day, I knew that dog therapy was what I wanted to do and that Charley was the right dog. From testing, through the learning and certification process and finally to working in the hospital, Jack was there every step of the way. Thanks to his teaching, his support and his cheerleading, Charley and I became a successful team.

Jack and Charley, one of his star pupils!

As for Elbee, if not for Jack, he might not have become a working dog. I had a severe virus when Elbee was a puppy and was out of commission for months, including his crucial socialization period. As a result, hard as it is to believe, Elbee became shy around people. If not for Jack’s constant encouragement, I might have given up. His trust in me as a handler kept me going.

ELBEE Imagine, I might never have become the fabulous diva that I am today. That would have been a loss for the world.

Jack also brought Gus into my life.  A few years ago, he contacted me to see if I’d be interested in a Teddy Bear Doodle that someone had to give up. Gina Grossman, an amazing trainer, had helped to select the dog and could vouch for his remarkable temperament. The rest is history.

To this day, I can sometimes hear Jack’s voice in my head as the Doods and I are working. I will never forget what he said as Charley was about to do his first bed visit with a woman waiting for a heart transplant. I nervously asked Jack, “You want Charley to jump on her bed?” He looked at me and calmly replied, “Ellen, our dogs don’t jump. They step.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gus Tries Harder

I was planning to write a more serious post this week. Then two things happened to change my mind. First, I woke up to Riley, our Golden Retriever, vomiting. Then I made the mistake of watching the morning news while I was eating breakfast. I really needed to lighten up. I started thinking about all of the positive reactions to the dogs, of course when they’re not vomiting.

Wednesday, at UCLA with Elbee, I realized that he doesn’t really have to try very hard. By virtue of being a large beautiful dog, he can simply walk into the hospital lobby and have everyone notice him. It’s like a supermodel stepping onto the runway. The attention and the smiles are automatic.

ELBEE Supermodel! Moi? I wonder if Project Runway takes dogs?

Tiny dogs, on the other hand, get by on their adorable quotient. Plus you can pick them up so everyone can see them.

Which brings me to Gus. Technically, at 30 pounds, he isn’t a large dog or a tiny dog. He’s kind of stuck in the middle. Not to mention, if you look at these pictures, you can see that it looks awkward, not cute, if you attempt to hold him.

 

 

 

 

 

ELBEE That is just embarrassing.

 

Even though Gus has the sweetest temperament, as a medium size dog, he has to try harder. He bursts into the hospital as if he’s arriving at a birthday party. Smiling, volunteering his tricks, wagging his tail and sometimes his whole body, he’s like the ice cream, the cake and the entertainment all rolled into one.

Whereas Elbee and other large dogs will usually wait patiently to be petted, Gus is a bit more proactive. He’s mastered the art of the “dog hug.” I know that he should probably keep his paws on the floor, but he’s so gentle and cute that people love it. It’s kind of like the Charley “lean.”

A Hug for Marsha
Even a Hug for Me

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Friday, when I took the dogs to Providence Tarzana Hospital, the kids in the day room on Pediatrics got the best of both worlds. They were petting Elbee as he lay patiently on the floor and they were cuddling with Gus like the Teddy Bear Doodle that he is. When the dogs did their tricks, the patients, their families and the staff responded with giggles and applause. Seeing all of their delighted faces, I could tell that the size of the dog really didn’t matter.

As much as they shine, I truly believe that all of our therapy dogs, no matter their size, put so much of themselves, of their own energy, into helping and healing that it’s exhausting. When they get home from work, the first thing they do is take a well deserved nap…something Gus and Elbee like to do together. They’re a bundle of comfort.

 

 

 

 

Does this Picture Make Me Look Short?

The good news is that, unlike last year (You Did What? 11/7/16), this Halloween I didn’t give any interviews to Telemundo in Spanish. Despite the fact that I’m probably on a gag reel somewhere, I have to admit that I’m disappointed that I haven’t been asked to do a cameo on a telenovela.

THE DOODS Aye Dios mío!

 

 

This Halloween, as soon as I heard that Brandon Ingram and Larry Nance Jr., two of the Lakers, would be joining the People Animal Connection at Mattel Children’s Hospital, I got Marsha the groomer on speed dial. I wanted to make sure she could do purple and gold trim on Gus. A shout out to her son Ryan who, as you can see, did a fabulous job. Then I found the shirt and the collar. Could it get any better?

The day of the event got off to a good start. In the UCLA lobby,  “Laker” Gus ran into his crush, “Laker Girl” Coogee.

 

 

 

When we arrived on the fifth floor of Mattel, the atmosphere was electric. The two Lakers were shaking hands, signing autographs and handing out candy. With dogs, parents, staff and most of all smiling children, even some who were seriously ill, it was easy to forget where you were.

I have been a Laker fan forever, even though the last few years have been rough, so how could I not ask for a photo. For the record, Ingram is listed at 6’9″ and Morrow is listed at 5’3″ and shrinking. As for Gus, we don’t want to go there.

Does this picture make me look short?

 

 

 

 

 

 

As always, there were special moments when I took Gus down the hall to do some individual visits. We were about to walk in to see a little boy when Gus suddenly pulled away, ran into the room and jumped on the bed. Despite the fact that we were breaking every rule, I could see how delighted the patient was. I looked at him and said, “I guess he really likes you!” With a big laugh, he responded, ” I can see that!”

Our last visit was to a sad looking young girl who was in isolation. When that’s the case we don’t go into the room. Instead we visit and show them the dogs from the doorway. I figured that a few of Gus’s tricks would be in order. By the time he danced, played peek-a-boo and waved, the giggling child was waving back at him.

Thank you to the Laker’s for helping to cheer up so many people. Thank you to the super hero who joined us. Sorry, I’m not sure who it was but the kids did! Above all, thank you to our amazing four legged super heroes. They used their magic powers to turn a difficult hospital day into a very happy and festive Halloween!

 

 

 

An Unexpected Smile

 

This week the Doods worked their special brand of magic at the adult health center that we visit. As I shared in my September 11th post, it’s a facility where people ranging in age from their 20’s up to their 80’s spend their days. Many are dealing with issues such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, PTSD or depression. Others have severe physical disabilities.

From the moment the chime sounded as we entered the front door, Elbee and Gus were on their game. They seemed more excited than usual in their interactions with the core of regulars and the staff members who were waiting to greet them. Gus even started to do a few tricks on his own.

Once in the main room, we slowly made our way around, stopping to chat with several of the people we’ve come to know over the past few years. Many sit in their usual spots waiting for me to bring the dogs over. Others will let me know with a simple gesture that they’d like a visit. One very sweet girl who has Downs Syndrome absolutely loves Gus and Elbee and will often follow us around.

At one point, we approached a few people seated on a sofa, including a man in his late 50’s whom we’ve seen many times. He’s usually very quiet and although he doesn’t seem uncomfortable around the dogs, he never really interacts with them. On this particular day, however, as Gus started to do his “dance,” the man suddenly smiled. He continued to smile as I let him give them each a treat.

At that moment, Lisa, a clinical consultant, happened to be walking by and stopped in her tracks. She looked at the man and asked in pleasant surprise, “Did I just see you smile?” I could sense how excited she was.

Coincidentally, Lisa is the person who found me and the Doods and invited us to the center. She is also one of the kindest people you would ever hope to meet. It wasn’t until a few minutes later when I was in her office talking to her and one of the nurses, that I found out how momentous this was. The man had severe depression and they hadn’t seen him smile in a year!

I was so moved and thought the morning couldn’t get any more emotional. I was wrong. As I was getting ready to leave, a sad looking young man who had been sitting alone at a table all morning, waved me over. When I asked if he wanted to see the dogs, he said, “No, I just wanted you to know how sorry I was to hear about your big dog Charley.” His words were so simple and sincere, they brought tears to my eyes.

An Embarrassment of Recognition

This was a very special week. As you may have seen on Facebook, the People Animal Connection at UCLA was honored by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. In the words of Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, “We had such fun recognizing the amazing and heartwarming work of one of the most comprehensive Animal-Assisted and Activity programs in the nation.”

Let’s face it. I’ve never been personally invited to a supervisors meeting and there I was in the front row with Gus and some of his canine co-workers. Several of us were awarded certificates, but we all know who the real heroes are. ”

ELBEE Excuse me, I wasn’t invited? 

 

GUS I was thrilled to be there and I don’t mean to be a complainer but do you see how Pack Leader is holding me and how Tommy’s person Donna is holding him? It’s happened before. They really need to work on that.

To my surprise, I also received an honor from UCLA Health this week. Last Friday, Erin Rice, the wonderful woman who heads PAC, said that she’d meet me and the Doods at the hospital on Monday morning. Having been busy with family or more likely having a senior moment, I asked, “for what?” She didn’t want to give it all away but simply said that it was for an award.

Once we got there, we were ushered into an auditorium where there was a sizeable crowd of people, including the Chief Patient Experience Officer and the Chief Medical Officer! Three of the therapists that we’ve been lucky enough to work with for years were in the audience and came up too offer their support and to congratulate us. In my usual spirit of honesty, I admit that I was still somewhat clueless.

As the ceremony progressed, Erin and a few other people said some beautiful things about us. They talked about special patient interactions with the dogs and about some of the work we’d done outside of the hospital like the candlelight vigil and the anti-bullying group. It was the most surreal experience. I was moved to tears.

I found out that I was receiving the CICARE award. I admit that I’ve been struggling about explaining what the award is for because I didn’t want to brag too much but I am so honored and humbled by it that I’m going to share. I was informed that it’s for “healing humankind, one patient at a time by improving health, alleviating suffering and delivering acts of kindness.”

If I have done any of that it’s only because I have been fortunate enough to have Charley and then Gus and Elbee at my side. As I’ve acknowledged before, I truly feel privileged to hold their leashes while they work. I may be the facilitator but they are the healers and the miracle workers. I also want to give a special thank you to Charley. Although he has been gone for several months, his spirit still guides me.

 

 

Me, the Mountains and the Stick

The mountains are my sanctuary, my think tank and my personal fitness center. I’m so comfortable up there that even my sense of direction is better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ELBEE That’s not saying a lot. Sometimes we pee on trees to make sure we can find our way back.

Okay, I may be pushing it but I figured I’d better justify this post because I’ll probably get some static from my daughter/mothers. They think I have a little streak of crazy but I prefer to call it a streak of adventure.

Awhile ago, I found a stick that gives me a certain sense of security. I started carrying it whenever I’m hiking alone. I use it for balance and for checking under rocks but figure I can use it as a weapon if I ever have to. I would share a picture of the stick but I don’t want anyone questioning my sanity or laughing at me. And no, I don’t think it has magic powers.

ELBEE Let me put it in perspective. If I fetched, which I don’t, the stick would almost be too ridiculous for me to bring back.

I was walking on dirt Mulholland when I decided to take the stick and head up a ridge trail that only the “regulars” use. For the record,  I’ve done it countless times. I was enjoying the climb, watching at least twenty ravens soaring over the canyon, putting on a spectacular air show.

Then there it was, right in front of me, a big rattlesnake. As you may know I’m not a huge fan of snakes but I do respect them and try not to bother them. This one, however, started getting on my nerves. It wouldn’t budge so that I could go by. Finally, I gave it a gentle nudge with the stick and it took off.

Snake on the Ridge
Relative of the Snake on the Ridge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I started climbing again, using the stick to make sure that none of the snake’s relatives were hiding in the rocks or bushes. Unfortunately, as I got near the top, I missed one little turn and instead of arriving back on the main trail, ended up looking down a mini cliff.

ELBEE She was probably “rattled ” after meeting the snake.

GUS Good one Elbee!

Since I had absolutely no desire to back track, I decided it was “doable” and slowly slid my way down. FYI: I’m writing this post from my house and not from a hospital bed.

Seriously, I am truly appreciative of my ability to climb these beautiful trails, especially with the wild fires that have been ravaging California. I also have such gratitude for my health and for my sense of adventure, which I admit has grown stronger as I’ve gotten older. I think that challenging yourself is a way to feel vibrant and alive, no matter your age.

It’s like the grandpa in the commercial who tells his wife he’s going fishing and then goes surfing with his grandson. I totally get it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How’d Ya Do That?!

Recently I was waiting in the lobby of a hospital while one of the daughters was having surgery. A woman with a Golden Retriever approached and quietly asked if I’d like to meet a therapy dog. Since I have never really had a visit from a therapy dog other than the Doods, who we all know are my live in therapists, I was fascinated. It was so interesting to be on the receiving end of the visit.

The interaction was lovely, not a term I use loosely, and one that has probably never been used to describe me. If I’m being honest, the Doods and I are more of a circus act. Although I will never go as far as the handler I saw who dresses like a clown. I’m terrified of clowns. Anyhow, the woman and I chatted as her very sweet dog rested its head in my lap. It made me realize that the style of visit is probably unique to each team.                                                                  

Speaking of style, take a look at this photo. It really has absolutely nothing to do with this post but I had to share. And if you want to know who’s responsible for this look, check out the middle daughter hiding her head.

 

 

 

ELBEE For the record, notice that I’m also hiding my head even though I’m torn. I’m not sure if this is sad or fabulous. I will admit that I’m strangely jealous.

Seriously, some interactions are determined by the personalities of the dog and the handler and others are determined by the situation. The common thread is that the dogs bring about results that can’t be easily explained. The young boy who hasn’t smiled in a week grinning from ear to ear. The man who awakens from a coma and remembers the presence of the dogs in his bed. The aggressive teen who ends up hugging a visiting dog. There is no simple answer.

Maybe it’s the time of year with Yom Kippur as a day of remembrance, but my thoughts turned to my brother Stan, who as I’ve shared in earlier posts, passed away from cancer when he was in his forties. Stan was a tv director who did magic as a hobby. He was so often asked, “How’d ya do that?”(and by the way, he would never tell me) that he used the phrase on a business card. A laminated version of that card has been hanging on a hook in my garage for the twenty years or so that he’s been gone.

As I glanced at it the other day, it dawned on me that what all of our amazing therapy dogs do is actually magic. Sometimes it’s close up magic as they cuddle with a sick child or help a patient forget her pain. Other times it’s stage magic as they entertain a group in the neuropsych units, charm a class of school students or distract an anxious family waiting to hear about a loved one in surgery. We may not put it into words, but as you watch the dogs in action, you have to wonder, “How’d ya do that?”