We had just finished visiting our assigned neuropsych units at UCLA when a staff member asked if I would bring Elbee to see a young patient who had been having a particularly rough day. From what I was later told, the patient had been “agitated, screaming, unable to calm down and unable to maintain safety for self or others.” There had been an indication that seeing a dog would be helpful.
By the time we arrived, the aggression was less but the patient was still irritable. I approached the child, who was sitting on a chair in an alcove of the hallway, not knowing quite what to expect. When I asked, “Would you like to pet Elbee?” I got a whispered “yes.” We sat and chatted as the child gently stroked Elbee (who, for the record, was an angel) and then wanted to know if it was okay to braid his hair. I already had him in pigtails, so how could I say no.
Since things were going well, I asked, “would you like to see a few of his tricks?” This time I got another quiet “yes” along with a smile, a smile that grew slightly wider with each trick. A few times, I even let the patient give the commands while Elbee performed like a trouper. It was as if he understood the responsibility of what he was doing.
As Elbee rolled over, crawled, high fived and said his prayers, the child began to applaud which led to the suggestion that we should teach him how to take a bow. Before I knew it, the patient was on the floor next to Elbee demonstrating to him how to do that. It was such a pure moment. Nothing seemed to matter except Elbee, the patient and the bow.
When I later learned of the difficulties that the patient was having, I was almost in disbelief. Our interaction had been incredibly positive. During the visit I was so engaged with Elbee and the child that I didn’t notice staff members who had been observing. As we said goodbye and prepared to leave, I saw looks of relief and happiness on their faces. I heard a few murmured thank you’s.
Therapy dogs seem to have an intuition about what’s required of them in different situations. I kid about Elbee being a clown, but that morning he stepped up. He was an angel. He was focused on the patient. He was gentle. He was kind. Somewhere his big brother Charley is looking down and smiling.