Happy New Year from Me and the Doods

In many ways 2017 was a difficult year. I hope that recapping the work accomplished by the Doods and their fellow therapy dogs will help us all focus on the positives in the world.

From meeting Lakers Brandon Ingram and Larry Nance Jr. as we all brought Halloween to the patients at Mattel Children’s Hospital to helping Santa at Providence Tarzana’s adopt a family day, the Doods and I were fortunate to take part in so many amazing events. Still, I will only write about one as I look back on the year because I want to focus on the quieter, less seen moments. They are the true heart of what our dogs so unselfishly accomplish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The UCLA student athlete event in March was bittersweet because it turned out to be Charley’s last “job.” He interacted with everyone with his usual grace and sweetness, little Gus by his side. At one point, I had the privilege of walking through the campus hall of fame. As entranced as I was with room after room of gleaming athletic awards and trophies, I was most taken with the portrait of the legendary John Wooden. In retrospect, there is a beauty in knowing that my legendary therapy dog spent his last evening in such a special place.

 

 

 

 

 

As I recall meaningful moments, I see the face of the man at the adult health center who was smiling for the first time in a year. I also see the beaming face of the young man whose hands are severely crippled but who loves to have me put treats between his fingers for Gus.

I see anxious parents sitting in the small waiting room outside of the UCLA neuropsych units. Recently, as we were leaving, the mother of a very disturbed young girl told me how much her daughter adores the dogs and how much she talks about them. With a wistful smile she simply said, “thank you for visiting.”

Neither the staff who were watching or I will ever forget Elbee’s interaction with a young patient who had been out of control and screaming, and according to the therapists, “a danger to self and others.” Within a matter of minutes the child went from petting Elbee and applauding his tricks to dropping down on the floor to teach him how to take a bow.

This year there were countless times outside of the hospital when the Doods suddenly brightened someone’s day. We were walking past a market when a teenage boy, who was working outside picking up carts, saw the dogs and got a huge grin on his face. Petting them, he asked if it was okay to give them a hug. When I assured him that it was fine, he wrapped his arms around them and said, “My heart feels warmer.”

My son-in-law Jay, who is wonderful despite being a self-admitted cat person, perhaps put it best. He said that when I’m out with the dogs, “random acts of positivity seem to circle around us.”

Wishing everyone a year of peace,  love and positivity!

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Inner Grinch

I have been known to indulge my inner Grinch during the holiday season. I guess you could call it my inner kvetch during Chanukah. And yes, I still binge watch Hallmark Channel movies as an antidote. But I’m afraid I may have weakened. I was about to put up a post that had absolutely nothing to do with this time of year. Then I realized I’d be sharing it on Christmas and I caved.

In retrospect I should have saved the post about caroling at UCLA or the one about the Adopt a Family program at Providence Hospital. Unfortunately, I didn’t think that far ahead. Instead I want to share a day with the Doods that for me epitomizes what this season should be about.

 

 

 

On Thursday morning we went to the Adult Health Center. There was a Christmas tree and there were some decorations but nothing brightened up the large room like Elbee and Gus. It didn’t matter if the participants were old or young, suffering from bipolar disorder or depression, so many just wanted to pet the dogs or hug them. A few followed us around.

An elderly woman who seemed distracted suddenly focused and told me they made her so happy. Another whispered in Spanish that they were angels.

ELBEE Finally somebody got it right.

I also found out that the quiet man who smiled for the first time in a year when he was with the dogs a few weeks ago, only smiles when they’re visiting.

After leaving the center, we drove over to see my dear friend Roberta, the one who has been battling brain cancer. She is a warrior if ever I’ve seen one. Never a complainer, she admitted how rough the treatment has been. After we chatted for awhile, the Doods took over. They love her and she loves them. I know she sneaks them treats whenever I’m not looking. For a brief time they make her forget about everything except them.

On the way home, with my two exhausted dogs in the car, it struck me just how many gifts they had given. Every single one was unselfish and priceless.

The next morning at a yoga class, Rebecca, the teacher, suggested dedicating our practice to some purpose or intent. Surprisingly, the first thought that came into my head was family and not dogs so I was kind of torn.

ELBEE That’s not funny.

Then Rebecca suggested focusing on gratitude and it made perfect sense. I apologize for any cliches or repetition but hey where’s your holiday spirit?

Working with the dogs, especially during this season, has taught me to be grateful. Seeing so many people who are slowed down by illness or injury, I feel fortunate to have my health. I am appreciative that I can write these posts even when I struggle. And yes, I truly am grateful for my family and friends.

I realized that being with the dogs as they help so many people is apparently giving therapy to my holiday spirit or lack there of. Uh oh. Are they killing my inner Grinch?

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

UCLA Pups on Parade

I was in the middle of writing this when we had a massive power outage in the neighborhood. I wondered if it was the universe telling me that my post sucked. I’m going to assume it was just a result of the heat wave we’re having and “power on.”

ELBEE If that was supposed to be funny, I should be doing stand-up. 

At the risk of sounding corny and emotional, I have to say that the Fourth of July was very special this year. No matter what side of the political, social or grocery aisle (shout out to all you vegans) people were on, there was a real sense of wanting to reach out and connect with each other.

That doesn’t mean that I didn’t run to have Marsha, Gus’s groomer/colorist, dye his ears and tail red and blue as soon as I knew that he was going to be in a parade. She even came up with the idea of putting paper plates over his ears to keep the color where it was supposed to be while she was applying it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ELBEE I admit that I was a little jealous until I saw that photo. Paper plates on my ears! As if!

GUS It’s the price of beauty.

Since we had to do the color a few days before the event, I sort of forgot about it until I took the dogs walking. Almost everyone we passed smiled and wished us a happy fourth. There was a pervasive sense of patriotism.

On the day of the parade, we met in Pacific Palisades with several of the other teams from the UCLA People Animal Connection. From the moment we arrived,   the atmosphere was incredibly warm and friendly. People seemed truly happy to be uniting in appreciation of America. It was a celebration of our history and our freedom.

 

I had been in the parade a couple of times but this year seemed different. The crowd was larger and if possible more enthusiastic.

 

Gus was so excited, his red and blue tail never stopped wagging. Before we started walking, he flirted with Ella, a Golden Retriever, and drooled over Gracie, a darling Chihauhau who is the smallest dog in the program in terms of size but not of heart.

As we started down Sunset Boulevard with all of the other dogs, Gus played to the crowd. He visited with spectators along the route and even did a few impromptu dance moves. With the children, he was spectacular. I have never seen so many smiling faces. Okay, once or twice he got a little tired and I had to carry him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the other two parades, Charley was by my side, greeting celebrants, young and old. As you know, we lost him this year but we also lost Tovah, another special member of PAC. She was a beautiful Dachshund who happened to be Charley’s “girlfriend.” They often worked events, including the parade, together, with Tovah riding in her wagon as she got older.

I cherish this photo of them. It will always represent the Fourth of July to me. Without even trying, Gus is once again following in his big brother’s paw prints. He’s carrying on in the tradition of Charley and Tovah, making them both proud.

 

 

 

A Different Dynamic

I confess that this post is going to be very self-indulgent.

ELBEE So what else is new?

The most painful losses in my life, other than the loss of my youth, have been my parents, my brother, and two very close friends. Losing Charley ranks right up there.

ELBEE To those of you who think that’s inappropriate (I don’t) remember that Pack Leader shared the birth of her grandson and Gus passing his therapy dog test in the same sentence.

I don’t mean that losing him hurts the same way that it hurts to lose a person. Oh who am I kidding. Of course it does. He was like my shadow and my protector.   He was a near constant presence in my everyday life. I think he considered himself my service dog but couldn’t figure out exactly what he was supposed to do for me.

Now that he’s been gone a few months, I realize just how much he orchestrated the rhythm of the the pack. I first noticed a change in the dynamics during our walks. When I used to take the three out together, Charley, by virtue of his size and personality, would get most of the attention. He could win people over in a matter of seconds. To compete, Elbee would either bark and be obnoxious or feign disinterest.

 

 

ELBEE Excuse me for expressing the two sides of my personality.

Without Charley by his side, Elbee appears larger and gets noticed a lot more. People constantly comment on how beautiful he is and are curious about his breed. Not surprisingly, he is thriving on the attention. At work he is so calm and focused, it’s like a different dog.

ELBEE Not sure if I should be flattered or offended. 

As for Gus, when he walked between the other two, he sometimes got lost in all of the hair. People couldn’t even see him. Now he struts by my side wagging his tail and smiling like the cute little diva he’s become.

Not sure if it’s my imagination or my hopefulness, but at work he seems to be showing some of Charley’s intuition. At UCLA this week, Gus was completely focused on a man sitting alone on a bench across the lobby. When he pulled me over to him, the man told me that he was nervous and stressed because his wife was having her third cancer surgery. Petting Gus, he relaxed and smiled and said that it, “made his day.”

When I come home may be the time I miss Charley’s presence the most. Riley, our senior citizen Golden is usually asleep behind the door. Elbee and Gus will run to greet me but it’s not the frenzy that it used to be. They’re excited but a little more subdued. It dawned on me that as well behaved as Charley was, he was the enthusiastic leader of the welcome home committee. He was so relieved that I was back that he made most of the noise and spurred on the other two. One of the hardest things since Charley’s passing has been not to hear that huge bark.