When Charley was six months old, we were in the waiting room at the vet when a woman walked over and commented on his demeanor, saying that he would be a perfect therapy dog. The very next morning this thoughtful stranger called me with the number for the UCLA People Animal Connection. Little did I know, it was a phone call that would change my life.
Charley was my dog but as we worked together over the years, he became my friend, my partner, oh let’s face it, my soulmate. The daughters referred to him as my “other husband.” He died the same way he lived, with grace, dignity and concern for my well being. He knew that I could never make the decision to let him go so he made it for me.
In early posts I wrote about all of the training and testing, but nothing prepared me for the emotions of walking into the hospital with him for the first time. I confess that I have a basic fear of hospitals and a bit of “white coat syndrome.” Yet when I went into the hospital lobby with that big, beautiful animal by my side, I was at ease.
Charley’s first bed visit was with a patient who had been been hospitalized for quite some time waiting for a heart transplant. She looked so frail in the small bed surrounded by huge equipment. My hands were shaking as I helped Charley step gently onto the bed. As he instinctively cuddled by her side, the woman wrapped her arms around him, started to cry and then to smile, sharing how lonesome she was for her own three dogs.
I watched in wonder as Charley comforted her. Any skepticism I had about how much a dog could accomplish completely disappeared. It was the moment that I became a true believer in the healing power, or maybe magic, of therapy dogs.
Two other patients experiencing “Charley love”
Charley became my teacher. That first day in the hospital, he taught me to be brave. Over the more than ten years that we volunteered together, he taught me to focus and be present for the patients, families and staff members who needed us. He taught me about unconditional love.
Charley was a special soul who lived a life of joy and purpose. His kindness, intuition and ability to heal were legendary. People still talk about the day that a woman who had been catatonic for over a week smiled and petted him. No one who experienced the Charley “lean” or the gentle grip of his big front paw ever forgot it.
At twelve, Charley was slowing down but still seemed to enjoy special events. The night before he passed, he and his mini-me Gus were visiting Bruin athletes at the UCLA Hall of Fame. He was his usual charming self and worked the room like a pro.
He seemed restless when we got home, so I spent most of the night sitting with him. In the morning, I left him on the bed while I went to feed the rest of the pack. When I came back upstairs, he wasn’t there. I found him in the yard. He had chosen a quiet spot under some purple flowering bushes to lay down. A half hour later he was gone. His giant heart had stopped beating.