Full Circle

Recently I had the privilege of meeting a wonderful young man named Van. He and his mom and dad were the family that took care of Gus before he came into my life. When circumstances forced them to give him up, there was a line of people wanting to adopt him.

Fortunately, recognizing that his temperament was perfect for a therapy dog, and having heard about Charley and Elbee, they chose me. Along with the joy of bringing him home, I felt so much responsibility with the trust they’d placed in me to give him a productive life. The good news is that he has far exceeded everyone’s expectations.

Over the past three years, I’ve kept in touch with the family, kind of an open adoption. I’ve shared Gus’s progress from passing his Pet Partner’s test with a perfect score to his very first day in the hospital. I also let them know about the more challenging situations he worked with Charley like the special needs camp and the anti-bullying group from Compton. I may have trained Gus but Charley was his true teacher.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was surprised when I received an email from Van and his mom asking if he could interview me. He’d been chosen as a finalist in a junior journalism contest and the topic they’d been given was “A Hometown Hero.” Since he knew all about my work with the dogs and even the accident and my bodybuilding past, he thought I’d be a good subject. Needless to say, I was very flattered. We arranged for them to come over to my house.

ELBEE Excuse me. We all know I’m the hometown hero. I just don’t do interviews. I let my accomplishments speak for themselves.

 

Although it had been over three years since Van, now an impressive eleven year old, had seen Gus, their connection was instantaneous. It was if they were long lost friends.

While his parents went for a walk, Van and I sat in the dining room with the Doods at our feet as I answered his very insightful questions. What struck me as we talked was how we’d come full circle. I know it was difficult for Van when they had to find a new home for Gus but he could see how well things had turned out.

I felt such gratitude. I was grateful that Van viewed me as a hero for doing the work that I love. I was grateful they’d entrusted Gus to me. And above all, on that particular morning I was tremendously grateful that, with a little help from Charley, I’d been able to give Gus the life that they’d envisioned for him.

 

Return to the Scene of the “Crime”

During a recent heat wave I decided to head to the beach with the dogs. Since I have no patience for sitting on the sand, I thought that Santa Monica would be perfect. The pier is a tourist attraction with lots of activity. Even better, there’s a pedestrian path that goes down to Venice.

ELBEE That sounded good to me. I like the beach although I’m not much of a surfer. I was, however, a little suspicious when I heard that Venice was on the agenda.

As soon as we walked up the steps to the pier, Gus and Elbee, with all of their hair blowing in the breeze, were surrounded by people. I lost count of how many wanted to take pictures. All that was missing were the “puparazzi.”

ELBEE I knew she couldn’t resist that lame joke. By the way, I’m pretty sure I saw Kendall Jenner and another model type on the pier. They had their own professional camera man with them. Why didn’t I?

Things stayed interesting on the ocean path. An adorable toddler in big sunglasses came over to pet the dogs. Two seemingly drunk men asked if I knew where there was a liquor store. Someone yelled out “Look at those diva dogs.”

ELBEE He was obviously very astute. 

 

 

 

That last remark was our welcome to Venice Beach which is a crazy, fascinating place that has become even messier since the last time I was there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still, I couldn’t resist posing the Doods for these touristy photos.

As if!!
Just embarrassing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ELBEE As for the one on the right, I don’t know which is worse, that she took the picture or that she’s sharing it here. And take a look at this one below. They’re opening a Muscle Beach History Museum! I think Pack Leader is hoping to secure a place. What is she? Arnold?

To be honest, I’m not sure if Venice Beach is the site of my former glory or of my former crime against “carpool momdom.” I had done a few bodybuilding shows before I competed there but they were sort of under the radar. The first was in Fresno. The other one or two were in places that no one in my daily life except my family would know about. Competing in Venice was like “Woo hoo, here I am.”

GUS “Woo hoo?” I don’t even say that.

To make it even better, Nicole, the middle daughter, was turning eleven and wanted to have her birthday party at the show. She probably wasn’t old enough to be embarrassed. To this day I wonder what the other parents thought about it. At least no one called child protective services.

Nicole had one special request. She asked if everyone could sing Happy Birthday to her if I won. I mentioned it to the emcee who loved the idea and brought Nicole up on stage as soon as I became Ms. Venice Beach.

ELBEE That was subtle.

 

Seeing the microphone in my face is probably disconcerting to anyone who knows about my singing. The good news is that with a thousand people in the crowd, no one could hear me.

 

 

THE DOODS Amen to that. Remember, we’ve heard her in the car.

 

 

The Doods Make the Day

 

For the past few years, I’ve been taking the Doods to an adult health center. Close to 100 people, ranging in age from their 20’s up to their 70’s and a few in their eighties, spend their days at the facility. Many are dealing with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, PTSD, dementia or depression. Others have severe physical disabilities.

A chime sounds as we walk in the front door and the dogs are instantly greeted by an excited crowd. There is a core of regulars who know the Doods and wait for their arrival as soon as they see them on the schedule. The appreciative staff members are always there to welcome us.

The center offers a wide range of activities. For instance, there are discussion and anger management groups, as well as light exercise or physical therapy sessions. Between activities, however, some just sit waiting at the long lunch tables or sprawl on couches scattered around the room. A few chat with each other while many keep to themselves.

I never quite know what to expect once we get to the central area. A sad looking man will suddenly get up from the couch, smile and start petting the dogs. An agitated woman will calm down and hug them. The people at the lunch tables will call out for me to bring them over. There is a ripple effect of positivity and happiness. There is more conversation.

Many of the regulars have an established routine with the Doods. Some of their interactions may seem odd but it’s moving to watch them reach out to the dogs. For a few minutes they forget their struggles as Elbee and Gus offer unconditional love and acceptance. There is no judgment.

One man always apologizes for not having dog treats. I slip him a few to feed the ever hungry Elbee. There is an elderly woman who often cries when she holds Gus but I was told that was her way of letting her emotions out. There is another man who runs over as soon as he sees us to tell me what wonderful dogs they are and how much he likes them. He just doesn’t want to touch them because he’s afraid he’ll get fleas.

ELBEE Normally I would be offended but under the circumstances, I understand.

There is one very handsome, physically handicapped young man who truly touches my heart. He is in a motorized wheelchair which he can operate despite extremely crippled hands. He speaks with difficulty but understands everything. He has a smile that lights up his face.

He always stays in one place at a lunch table so I bring the dogs to him. He was able to reach Charley and now Elbee but I pick up Gus so that he can pet him. We’ve even worked out a way for me to fit treats between his fingers so that he can feed them.

Due to life happening, last week was the first time that I’d been there in awhile. I could immediately sense how glad he was to see the dogs but it was something so simple that let me know how much he really cared. Instead of remaining at the table, he made the effort to move his chair to follow us around the room. It was a special morning.

A well deserved rest

 

 

 

 

 

The Hair of the Dog

ELBEE That may be the worst title that Pack Leader has ever come up with and trust me there have been some bad ones. I don’t even think she knows what it means. Being a dog about town, I admit that I’ve indulged in a morning after Bloody Mary or two.

I think that hair can make a huge difference in the way you feel. The right haircut can change your whole outlook. On a good hair day, my attitude is better. I’m more productive, more positive. I could talk my way out of a traffic ticket (that was a long time ago). On a bad hair day, I just stick on a baseball hat and hide from people I know at the market.

ELBEE Excuse me, my baseball hat is a fashion choice.  I rarely have a bad hair day.

Oh wait, this post was supposed to be about Gus, not me, but obviously I have hair issues.

ELBEE She has her hairdresser on speed dial!

I was planning to write about Gus because I’ve let his hair grow and it has totally changed the way people respond to him. I used to keep him cut short because, although he’s non-shedding, he can get a lot of knots. It was just easier. As his coat grew, I realized how much cuter he looked. Other people noticed too. He started to draw more attention, a big plus when you’re a therapy dog.

Old Gus

 

New Gus

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ELBEE My hair has always been long and fabulous but Pack Leader did the same thing to me with pigtails. To be honest, I used to  hate them but now I’ve come to embrace them. And how about this look? It’s fitting for the diva I am.

At UCLA, someone who knew him well, saw the long haired version and asked if I’d gotten another dog. His new look is a great conversation starter, especially when the weather is humid and his hair sticks out even more. A woman who was petting him commented that his coat was “magical.”

I really noticed a difference when Gus arrived for his visits in the neuropsych units. He’s called a Teddy Bear Doodle (not sure what that is) and the kids began to react to him as if he was a stuffed animal. They wanted to hold him and cuddle with him. One boy offered me $68 dollars to buy him and another told me that he was going to hide Gus in his room.

Along with his popularity, Gus has acquired his share of nicknames. Like Elbee, he’s been called a sheep and poofy dog. Then there was that unfortunate fluff monster reference. When his ears and tail were blue for the Dodger game, someone remarked that he was like a giant blueberry.

ELBEE Don’t forget that another person said he looked like a member of an 80’s hair band. 

Rock on!

Gus I still don’t know what that means.

Last week in the hospital lobby, he was given perhaps his best name ever. Someone took one look at him and christened him, ” Little White Cloud.”