The Power of Therapy Dogs

Over many years of volunteering in the neuropsych institute at UCLA, I have had the privilege of watching the Doods do some breathtaking work. I know that I often use the word “privileged” but that’s truly how I feel when I watch them coax a smile from a sad child or enable a patient to momentarily forget his pain. They offer kindness and unconditional acceptance. And they do it simply by being dogs.

ELBEE Excuse me, by being fabulous dogs. Sorry, I had to add my two cents.

Last week I shared a story about Elbee’s positive interaction with a deeply troubled child. Several people told me that it gave them deeper insight into what therapy dogs can actually accomplish. After hearing that, I decided to share another story that speaks to the great work of our pet partners.

It happened a few years ago and involved both Charley and Elbee. Rather than an immediate reaction they slowly gained the trust of a very disturbed teenager.

When we visit our regular units, we usually go into the day room with small groups of patients who want to spend time with the dogs.They gather around,  petting them or grooming them with a very soft brush I bring with me. It generally relaxes everyone and leads to easy conversation, often about the patients’ own pets.

On one particular morning in the adolescent unit, an agitated boy, who chose not to be in the room, was instead causing a major distraction. He kept running by in the hall, yelling and screaming. Occasionally he would step into the room, shout and then leave again.

What was beautiful to see was how the teens in the unit were so protective of Charley. I also want to mention the wonderful professionals working in the NPI. Although it can be a very unpredictable environment, they make sure we’re safe.

The next time we came, the same boy was again acting out but after a few minutes, he walked into the room and sat on the couch. He was slightly disruptive but quieter than he had been. Without warning, he walked over to Charley, lay down on the floor next to him and put his arms around him. The staff and even the patients in the group looked on in surprise.

On the last time that we saw the same teen, it was Elbee’s week to visit. Like it has been since Charley’s passing, it was his turn to step up. Elbee was on the floor with all of the kids, when the boy walked into the room and again sat down on the sofa. Suddenly he got up and lay down on the floor, hugging Elbee just like he had Charley. Then a moment later, I heard him whisper to Elbee, “I love you.”

 

Big Paw Prints to Follow

ELBEE Thank goodness she changed the title. This post was going to be called Life Goes On which I thought was depressing and kind of a cliche.

Last week I went to UCLA with Gus. Walking into the hospital for the first time since Charley passed was as emotional as walking in with him for the very first time years ago. Carol, a wise woman and honorary “aunt” to the Doods who helps out with PAC, said that Charley would always be by my side to guide me and keep me brave. He definitely was there in spirit that morning.

I asked Marsha, the groomer with all of the magic colors, to give Gus pastel ears and a pastel tail for Easter. To be honest I think it was to create a distraction. I also think I brought Gus instead of Elbee because there was no chance anyone would mistake him for Charley and lead to an awkward moment.

GUS I’m getting used to the colors but with Pack Leader keeping my hair long, about 10 people said that I looked like a sheep. Someone else commented that I looked like a member of an 80’s hair band. What is that?

ELBEE Normally I would be insulted about not going into the hospital but out of respect for my big brother, I get it. And note to self: try to explain to Gus how much P.L. misses the 80’s.

I was very nervous about seeing all of the people at the hospital who miss Charley almost as much as I do. I was afraid that I would end up a blubbering mess. Fortunately, everyone was so kind and supportive. There were hugs and there were tears but the morning was healing. Gus was a big part of that. He comforted me at the same time that he reached out to patients and staff. He showed a certain grace and maturity that I hadn’t seen before.

He really stepped up his game. It was as if he knew that he had some big paw prints to fill. He strode through the lobby with total confidence. Well, as much as a little guy can stride. He was sweeter than ever. A woman in the volunteer office was so enchanted that he became her favorite dog within five minutes. I noticed him doing something that Charley often did. He would sit very still and look around as if assessing the situation to see what he needed to do. Note to the daughters: No I have not lost it. He really did. I have witnesses.

He almost over performed. I’d give him the hand signal for down and he’d follow that but then add a bunch of tricks on his own. He got laughs. He got applause. He won people over. He helped me cope.

All in all the day went well. Gus was exhausted but worked like a champ. Despite more mood swings than I had during menopause and pregnancies put together, I didn’t end up a blubbering mess. That happened later.

At night my husband found a package on the doorstep and said,  “you’ve got something here from UCLA.” Having no idea what to expect, I tore it open and found this beautiful plaque. I was so moved by the thoughtfulness of the gesture and the sentiments behind it that the tears started pouring down my face. They were tears of sadness but also of pride and gratitude.

 

 

 

Dogs Cry Too

 

 

It’s obvious that Elbee and Gus have  been feeling the loss of their big brother. They are both more subdued. Yet each one seems to be grieving in his own way. At least neither one has a pimple like I did.

Elbee was howling in his sleep the other night and has even whimpered a few times. That’s something he’s never done before.

ELBEE But thank goodness I don’t have a pimple.

He was always happy resting on the floor. Now he sleeps in Charley’s spot on the bed with his head on the footboard. Speaking of the bed, he is sometimes prone to stomach problems during the night. When it happened in the past, Charley would always nudge me awake with his paw so that I would let Elbee out. Well last night was one of those nights. Elbee didn’t nudge me but instead did a soft bark (not his usual really loud annoying one) to get me up. It was surprising.

ELBEE I thought this was supposed to be about my grieving, not my personal habits.

He also seems to have become a lot more mellow. I think it’s because, as much as he loved Charley, he now has one less dog to compete with. It’s no secret that Elbee enjoys undivided attention.

ELBEE Has it ever occurred to her that I may be maturing.

Today was the happiest I’ve seen Elbee in weeks. My grandson Ryan, one of his favorite people in the world, slept over and really seemed to cheer him up.

Gus looks sad and a bit lost without Charley. As Charley quietly passed away in the yard, the little guy sat about ten feet away, watching intently and not moving. It was if he understood what was happening. More and more, I notice him sitting very still with that serious look on his face.

As I’ve shared in previous posts, Gus worked several events with Charley so not only was he bonded to him but Charley was his teacher. Together they comforted at the UCLA candlelight vigil. They taught an anti-bullying group from Compton about kindness. They showed unconditional acceptance to children at a special needs camp. At each of these events they would occasionally check in, licking each other on the face.

Gus has picked up some of Charley’s habits. He’s become a little “stalkerish” in a good way and follows me around the house. The other day he even pushed open the bathroom door to find me. Charley, and my kids when they were young, are the only ones who have ever done that.

He also does the “nudge” during the night. Unlike Charley, who did it so I would let Elbee out to throw up, Gus just does it so I’ll wake up and pet him. The poor guy is lonely.

Elbee Really?

As the weeks have gone by, Elbee and Gus have turned to each other more and more. Very rarely will you find either of them alone. This unusual “rug” is the two of them cuddled together for comfort and support.

 

Goodbye My Gentle Giant

 

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.

 

 

 

Thank You Doods

As the Doods and I begin the new year together, I want to take a moment to reflect on and celebrate some of the great work that they’ve done. I had been planning to write this at Thanksgiving but they were so out of control on the holiday that I couldn’t do it.

THE DOODS OMG We acted like dogs.

Charley and Gus became quite a team this past year. Charley, older and wiser now, can still rise to special occasions with Gus as his backup. Gus contributes the energy of a two year old along with an innate sweetness.

Together they brought comfort to the students and faculty at the candlelight vigil for the murdered UCLA professor. They spent a magical morning at an all inclusive camp for special needs children.

 

 

 

 

 

 

They taught an anti-bullying group from Compton about unconditional love.

 

 

 

 

 

The week before Christmas, Charley and Gus did a holiday “meet and greet” at UCLA Medical Center. With the dogs sitting in a toy car by the tree, a car which Charley later took for a spin, the mood in the lobby changed from somber to festive. Watching them weave their magic with patients, families and staff was a true gift of the season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ELBEE Excuse me. What am I chopped liver?

I was just about to get to Elbee. He’s a bit of a diva and works better on his own. He thrives on the individual attention.

 

ELBEE I would object but she’s correct. I am rather fabulous.

One day as Elbee and I were waiting for the hospital elevator, I saw a woman pushing a wheelchair for her teenage daughter who had Downs Syndrome. After she assured me that her daughter liked dogs, I brought Elbee over to see her. As we approached, the girl got a huge smile on her face. After Elbee did a few tricks the smile grew from ear to ear. The only thing more beautiful was the look on her mother’s face.

On another occasion, a woman asked me to bring Elbee over to see her son who appeared to be severely disabled. Like the teenage girl, he was also in a wheel chair. I had no idea how much the young man understood, but as Elbee walked over and licked his hand, I said, “Oh he likes you. He’s kissing you.” It was then that the boy made a kiss toward the dog. If not for that interaction I would never have known that he completely understood what was happening. As Elbee waved good bye, the young man sent him another kiss.

As chief leash holder for the Doods, I have been privileged to see so many miracles, large and small. I never cease to be amazed at their intuition and their capacity for kindness and unconditional love, just like they showed the kids from Compton, the campers with special needs, the crowd in mourning and countless others.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our Holiday Heroes

 

Miracle Workers

Yesterday, Donna, my fellow Yom Kippur felon (her words not mine, although I wish I’d said them) and I decided to take Gus and Tommy to UCLA to spread a little Christmas cheer.

GUS I was there on Yom Kippur but I’m innocent. Do I need  a lawyer?

CHARLEY If you’re clueless about the Yom Kippur remarks, see Pack Leader’s October post, “Oy Vey.”

 

And it couldn’t hurt that Hanukkah and Christmas fell at the same time this year. I was thinking that it might give us some bonus points to make up for our non-observant Yom Kippur or anything else we may have done. Not to mention, what a great excuse for dressing up the dogs. They both look fabulous in red.

I also got a sign from the universe as I was heading to UCLA. The middle daughter, remember the one who likes the dogs, sent me a photo of a hair clip that she’d found while going through some old boxes. It had been given to her by my dearest friend Eileen on a Christmas long ago. As I shared in the Oy Vey post, Eileen passed away several years ago and way too young. With the sudden appearance of the clip, I could feel her smiling down on us.

A Gift from Eileen

This is a tough time of year for anyone to be in the hospital.  For parents with a sick child it’s even more difficult. How great if we could bring them a few moments of happiness.

As we crossed the threshold into the hospital, the Christmas miracles began. Suddenly stress and sadness were replaced by smiles and laughter. When we finally made it up to Pediatrics and then the PICU, I’m not sure if the staff, the patients or their families were most excited to see Gus and Tommy. Countless times we heard the words, “This makes my day.”

From the toddler in her red Christmas dress to the little girl who had brain surgery, they momentarily put aside their pain and unhappiness to pet and hug the dogs. I wish I had the words to express how moving it was to see Gus or Tommy on the bed cuddled in a child’s arms. The only things more touching were the looks on their parents’ faces.

Although Gus and Tommy barely weigh 50 pounds between them, together they brought tons of holiday love to UCLA Medical Center. I hope Eileen is proud.

MERRY CHRISTMAS                          
HAPPY HANUKKAH

Who Ya Gonna Call? Stress Busters!

When my cousin and I were in college at Syracuse University, we felt that final exams were the most stressful things that could possibly happen to anyone. When people would tell us to get a grip because those were the best years of our lives, we thought they were insane.

Apparently, Some things never change. Finals week at UCLA is as stressful as ever. But they have a secret weapon to combat the anxiety.

ELBEE Xanax?

CHARLEY Hot yoga?

 

 

 

No it’s not drugs or yoga. It’s therapy dogs! As part of the People Animal Connection, teams of dogs visit Powell Library to help everyone relax. Gus went in with his wingman Tommy, a Bichon, and Pierre a French Bulldog.

Tommy
Gus

 

 

 

 

It was like magic when they walked through the door. The mood in the library immediately shifted from serious and somber to festive. Smiling students and faculty surrounded the dogs, hugging and petting them, taking selfies. There was a lot of laughter. No one was studying. Wait, is that a good thing?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gus and Tommy also worked together on Yom Kippur, the day that Donna (Tommy’s person) and I decided that doing a good deed on the holiday outweighed traditional observance. We were a little short on atonement and fasting but very big on comforting people.

As I have shared, we survived the day without mishap. No lightening strikes. No plague. Not even a broken nail. I took that as a positive sign.

THE DOODS Really?!? 

GUS What about me and Tommy? Does anyone realize that we’re both Jewish?

Earlier this year, Gus and Tommy attended a workshop together to get tips on being even better therapy dogs than they already are. Not their finest moment. It wasn’t that they were barking or carrying on. They just couldn’t seem to focus.  They insisted on sitting on the table and were either chatting or falling asleep.

GUS and TOMMY You try sitting there for four hours!

Oy Vey

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Last Wednesday was Yom Kippur. As far as holidays go, that’s a really big one. It’s a day of atonement, reflection, remembrance, fasting (some of us are not so great at that). Unfortunately, it was also my regular day to bring a Dood into UCLA Medical Center to cheer up the patients. To make matters worse, Gus and his friend Tommy, an adorable Bichon, had been requested for a very special visit.

I was in a Jewish quandary. Would going into the hospital, a good deed referred to as a mitzvah, make up for my total lack of traditional observance? I called Tommy’s person Donna who was having the same dilemma. We decided that dealing with the Jewish guilt would be worth it because what the dogs do is so important.

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GUS Excuse me, did anyone ask me or Tommy how we felt about this?

As it turned out, the visits were a huge success. Tommy and Gus brought so much joy. People were laughing, smiling, picking up the dogs and cuddling them. And on a a bright note none of us was hit by lightening and we all made it home safely.

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Later in the day to add insult to injury or to celebrate the holiday, depending on your perspective, I hiked up into the mountains, my own spiritual place. I needed to see the ocean. My brother’s ashes and those of my dearest friend Eileen, both of whom passed away too young, are in the Pacific. Looking out over the water is my special way to connect with them. I stood on a hill with tears of remembrance rolling down my face.

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I made it down the trail unscathed, no bruises, scratches, broken bones. I decided that was an excellent sign. Then it dawned on me. My mother had died 47 years ago to the day. I had to believe she was up there shaking her head, but smiling at me.

 

 

Nobody Likes a Bully

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Charley and Gus have turned into quite a tag team. Just as amazing as their work at the UCLA candlelight vigil and at Camp JPAC was their visit with a group of 27 sixth graders from Emerson Elementary School in Compton, California. The kids were part of the Bullying Intervention Program, backed by UCLA Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital, L.A. county board of supervisors 2nd district and the Compton Unified School district.

Anonymous
Elbee the Fabulous

ELBEE I hate to break the mood, but I am sick and tired of being left out. I’m going to have a heart to heart with Pack Leader and make sure she shares my fabulous accomplishments. And is it so bad that I like to work alone? I’m a star.

The students were on a special field trip to UCLA. With their bus caught in the usual L.A. morning traffic, they were all a little stressed when they finally got to campus. That changed when the Doods pranced into the room. The mood turned to enthusiasm and positive excitement. When I looked around, all I saw were smiling faces. They were sweet, gentle and very polite as they petted and hugged the dogs. I heard later that the visit with Charley and Gus had set the tone for the entire day.

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The kids listened intently as I talked to them about the People Animal Connection and the work of therapy dogs. They asked questions and told me about their pets. As I moved around the room, one little boy whispered that his sister had autism and that they were going to get a dog to help her.

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They all looked surprised when I told them that Charley had been bullied. I explained that as big as he was, when we walked by a Starbucks in the neighborhood, small dogs would often lunge at him from under the tables and bark at him. They nodded in understanding when I said that he was afraid to go by. They seemed proud of Charley when I added that he had learned to handle it by ignoring them and walking away. 

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The UCLA Candlelight Vigil

Last night, as part of the People Animal Connection at UCLA, I had the privilege of bringing the big and little Doods, Charley and Gus, to the candlelight vigil for professor William Klug who was senselessly murdered on Wednesday. I strongly believe in the work of therapy dogs but to see them in action last night gave me an even greater respect for their power of healing.

As we slowly made our way through the huge crowd gathered on campus, one person after another asked if they could pet the dogs. At times there were 6 or 7 people around them, petting them, hugging them. With tears streaming down their faces, men and women of all ages would break into smiles at the interaction.

At one point, Josh, a wonderful young man who works on campus, walked slightly ahead of us asking if anyone needed some dog therapy or love. Not one person said no.

At eleven, Charley is a pro but even for him this was a difficult situation. When he would encounter someone who seemed to have an even greater need, he would do his famous “lean” as if to offer support. Gus just turned two but somehow instinctively knew what to do. He gently licked a few people and actually cuddled with others. Through it all, his tail was wagging and he had a smile on his face.

Every so often Gus and Charley would turn back to me or kiss each other’s faces. It seemed to give them the security to keep going. I honestly think they sensed the importance of what they were doing.

I was so focused on the dogs, their interactions, their well-being that I was able to hold it together as one person after another got up to speak. Some talked about this amazing man who had been lost too soon. Others talked about the difficult issues we now face in everyday life when peace on campus can be so easily shattered. It was only this morning as I sat with my exhausted dogs around me that I started to cry.

The Doods weigh in