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?

 

 

 

 

 

I Love this Day

Holiday spirit came to Providence Tarzana Medical Center this week. As part of the “Adopt a Family” program the staff helped less fortunate people fill their wish/need lists. There were piles of beautifully wrapped presents. I saw nothing but smiles on everyone’s faces. I think we all felt as if we were celebrating the true meaning of Christmas and Chanukah.

Representatives from Reseda High School and One Generation were on hand to collect the gifts for distribution. Also on hand were the fabulous Doods and Annie a darling Poodle, another hospital therapy dog. There was no singing involved which is probably why they let me participate.

ELBEE For the record, she has never called me “darling.”

 

 

There was also a very special guest joining in the festivities. It was none other than Santa Claus. After the gifts were loaded up to be delivered to deserving families in the community, Santa headed to the sixth floor to hand out presents to the young patients in pediatrics.

At first the kids squealed in delight to see Santa and were so excited about the toys. Then suddenly they noticed the dogs coming down the hall and it was all over for Santa.

ELBEE No one steals the show from this diva, not even Santa

I happen to know this particular Santa personally. In the “off “season he’s a wonderful firefighter named Mitch. He was laughing and said that he couldn’t believe he was taking a back seat to the dogs. I told him, “That’s just great. The therapy dogs will give Santa issues and send him for therapy.” Can you imagine my Jewish guilt?

Even Santa Mitch, who actually has a therapy dog of his own, realized that the dogs were working their Christmas magic. Their was such joy as they walked into the rooms. Kids were hopping out of their beds to cuddle with them. As much as they loved seeing Santa and receiving their presents, it was petting the dogs that brought the biggest grins.

One little boy just touched my heart. He had been very busy building Legos in his bed but was quietly happy when the dogs came in to see him. A few minutes later he walked out into the hall and received a gift from Santa but quickly came back to the dogs. Hugging Gus, he looked around as if trying to take it all in. Then, with the sweetest expression on his face he said, “I love this day.”

 

 

 

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.”

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pit Bulls, Parolees and a Doodle

 

Charley has quite the resume, especially for a dog. He was in the movie I Love You Man. He’s been in several parades.

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He’s been on TV, in magazines and newspapers. He worked at an academy awards gifting suite.

He was even in the Bedhead pajama catalog.

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CHARLEY I regret that I’ve never been asked to do a radio interview. I actually think I could pull it off.

What few people know is that he was on the tv show Pit Bulls and Parolees, a program about a woman who rescues Pit Bulls and has parolees help train and rehabilitate them.

20160525_091431_1472427293345_resizedELBEE I’m sure Pack Leader was wondering if there was an audience for her blog in prison.

 

During our episode a parolee was testing a large Pit Bull to be a therapy dog. Charley and I were there as the neutral dog team.  It’s the exercise in the Pet Partners evaluation where the two teams approach, the handlers greet each other, and the testing team then walks on by. The dogs aren’t supposed to show more than passing interest in each other.

Unfortunately, Fido, the Pit Bull and Fred the parolee (fake names) failed the test. After walking by, “Fido” circled back to get Charley. A big no no.

CHARLEY I was terrified. I’m a lover not a fighter.

Since the producers knew the outcome, when they were editing the show, they made a big dramatic deal about the neutral dog exercise coming up. “Fred” had to say how nervous he was about it. It was like the obligatory part of a cooking show where someone says, “this is a disaster.” As they went to commercial, they had a shot of big, scary Charley with a kind of Jaws music playing.

  20161006_193948_resized CHARLEY It was humiliating, almost as humiliating as this shirt.

After “Fido” failed, they went to “Fred” for reaction.  He commented that the big, fluffy white dog had been their downfall. Maybe I should have used fake names for me and Charley instead.

Fortunately he was a very sweet parolee and said he totally understood. Hey, maybe he would like my blog.

 

 

 

 

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.

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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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A Special Goodbye

In the wake of the horrendous shootings in Florida, I have chosen to write about a man who represents the best of our country. Frank Callahan was honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy in 1945 after receiving a Purple Heart. He was also awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action as a hospital corpsman attached to the Marines. He was a special agent for the FBI from 1951-1979.

Above all, he was a gentleman, a wonderful husband, father to four daughters and friend to many. He was also a buddy to the Doods. During his last hospital stay, shortly before he passed, I had the privilege of bringing the dogs in to visit and cheer him up. He was resting when we reached his room but as soon as I tapped on the door, he woke up, saw the dogs and got the sweetest smile on his face.

A final visit with the Doods
A final visit with the Doods

He wanted to pet the dogs so I lifted Charley and Elbee gently onto his bed. His smile grew even wider as they snuggled close to him while he rubbed their heads. We spent the next few minutes in peaceful conversation, totally forgetting his illness. I took photos for his daughter Tracy to share with the family.

Frank passed away at home days later. He was buried with honors in Arlington cemetery. My deep gratitude goes to him and to his family for those precious moments we spent in the hospital and for the sweet memory of him with the Doods. At difficult times we need to focus on the people who make our country great.

 

 

The Little Dood Solos

Recently Gus soloed at UCLA. Well, I went along but only to hold his leash and provide car service. I honestly think if he had a license, he might have gone by himself. When we got there, he strutted through the huge marble lobby  like he owned the place.

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CHARLEY AND ELBEE We tried to tell him about Uber but he just didn’t get it.

 

While he was doing the lobby strut, a few people from administration happened to see us and invited Gus (and me) into their offices. They offered a rug to lie down on and a bowl of water any time we needed it so I think we know who they were trying to impress.

20150110_081629_resizedGUS If they’d thrown in a chew bone I would have spent the day with them. They seemed like lovely people.

Up on the fourth floor, Gus worked the neuropsych units like a pro. From the kids, to the teens, to the adults, he knew how to behave with each group of patients. It was almost as if Charley and Elbee had coached him. With his tail wagging, he pranced up and down the halls as the younger kids took turns holding his leash with me. One little girl was so taken with him that she ran to her room and brought her special stuffed animal for him to take home. By the way, he started doing some tricks that I didn’t know were in his repertoire.

My brothers better not take my new toy
Doctor Doods help out
Doctor Doods help out

CHARLEY AND ELBEE Of course we coached him. We have to protect our reputations. We’re practically doctors. Plus we’d get bored if we just sat around all day, so we chat. For fun we also help him work on his tricks.

 

Later in the morning, while we were waiting for my car, a woman quietly approached to thank me and to share how grateful she was for the work that we do with the dogs. She said her son was one of the patients that Gus had visited on the fourth floor and that it had made his day. She then walked away to wait for her car. It was one of those simple, touching moments that is its own reward.

20160331_143743_resizedGUS I loved going to the hospital and working solo because I got all of the attention. I just didn’t know it was going to be so exhausting. I have to talk to Charley and Elbee about this.