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?

 

 

 

 

 

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.”

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Synchronicity

This week I was planning to write about Elbee returning to work at UCLA, his first time since Charley’s been gone.

ELBEE Finally it’s about me. Uh oh, she said “was.”  Does that mean I’m going to be bumped once again? For the record, it was a triumphant return. I was fabulous.

 

As I was saying, I was going to write about Elbee but after a serendipitous encounter at Providence Tarzana Hospital, I wanted to share the moment. It was all about the simple, sometimes subtle, power of a therapy dog.

Providence is where Nicole, the middle daughter and the one who loves the Doods, works as an ICU nurse. Last Friday, when I took Gus into the hospital, she happened to be there so we stopped on her floor to visit.

By the way, Charley and Elbee loved seeing Nicole in the hospital. They knew where the ICU was and would sit outside and refuse to budge until she came out. As soon as they saw her they would completely lose it and start barking, something they never do when they’re working. It was difficult to explain the situation to people who had no idea why these over excited dogs were allowed in the hospital.

ELBEE Excuse my enthusiasm!

While we were chatting in the corridor, a young girl who was visibly upset walked out of the unit. My daughter explained that she had been caring for the girl’s beloved grandfather who had passed away only a short time before. Tears on her face, the girl walked over to talk to my daughter. I noticed that she seemed to relax when she saw Gus, so I asked if she’d like to pet him.

She immediately dropped to the floor, petting and then hugging Gus. Within seconds, she stopped crying and got a smile on her face as the little guy worked his magic. Simply by sharing his sweetness and unconditional love, Gus had momentarily lightened her sadness.

She was surprised to learn that I was Nicole’s mother but it seemed to make her even more comfortable. She opened up and told us that although she was only 14, she’d known for a long time that she wanted to be a nurse. She even shared that she’d like to volunteer in some capacity. My daughter offered to help in any way that she possibly could.

As I got ready to leave, I realized that I had never asked the girl her name. To my surprise, it was Nicole.

My thoughtful look

ELBEE Although I’m still a bit upset about being pushed to the next post, I get it. That was a nice story. Almost brought a tear to my eye.