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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
GUS 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.
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.
GUS 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.
The Doods We’d like to say kudos, bravo and woof to our self appointed pack leader on her last post. In our humble opinion (well, Charley is humble) it was insightful and accurate. We’ve talked among ourselves and think her daughters may be a little jealous of us.
Now that the Doods have weighed in, here’s the good news and the bad news. All three of my daughters read my last post about dogs being better than children. Here’s the really bad news. Mother of the year is definitely off the table. Danielle (yes, I’m naming names) fell back on the old saying, “if you can’t say anything nice.” I’m going to cut her some slack because she has a two year old and a four month old. I’m sure if she wasn’t sleep deprived she’d have had some wonderful things to say.
On facebook she asked (or begged) for her sister Nicole to chime in. Nicole suggested they write their own blog called, “Our crazy blonde mom who looks like her dogs.” They shot that one down because they were afraid I’d like it. They were correct.
Since Nicole is the one who actually likes the dogs, I asked if she’d mind sharing the post, meaning with friends. Instead she shared it with Jennifer, the oldest, and the one who pretends that she hates the dogs. Jennifer’s response was, “Lets see the dogs take care of her in her old age.” She did have a point.
Jennifer really surprised me one day when she told me that her friends had been looking at the blog and cracking up. I was so flattered, assuming they’d been reading it. She said, “no mom, they couldn’t understand about the movie with Charley and the whole thing about you and the dogs looking alike, so I just showed them the pictures. They were laughing so hard they were crying.”
GUSYes, I’m in a shopping cart. Don’t ask. Elbee told me that to be funny, Danielle sent Pack Leader a video of a man dancing with his dog and asked if any of us could do that. Now she wants to take lessons with me. Oh no!
Testing for Pet Partners with Gus was stressful but it was nothing compared to my very first ever testing. I’d never studied or taken a test with a dog, not even one as smart as Charley.
It wasn’t that the test was going to be tricky or full of surprises. Everything had been explained and illustrated in the workshop and in the huge book we were given (and which I read more than once and highlighted). It was just so different from anything I’d ever done. I certainly didn’t want to let Charley down, or worse, explain to my laughing children why I’d failed. Then, just as I was getting it together, someone told me that if you’re nervous, your emotions travel down the leash to your dog. Great! I had to worry about upsetting him with my issues.
In the weeks before the test, I drove the family nuts with my concerns, questions, and need for support. When I made the mistake of telling the kids that the evaluation would begin as soon as I left the car, they had a field day with that information. They convinced me that people with walkie-talkies (cell phones weren’t big yet) would be hiding behind trees and reporting on my behavior. If Charley or I did anything wrong, our mug shots would be sent to testing central.
After all of their kidding and practically doing skits at my expense, I was totally surprised when we arrived at the testing site on the UCLA campus. A friendly girl named Heather, who was in plain site, walked up and greeted us. When I asked about spies, she assured me there were none, and looked at me as if I was insane.
When the evaluation began, my genius dog sat down at my side and gazed up at me. The examiner said, “That’s perfect. Just what we want to see, a connection between handler and dog.”
CHARLEY Pardon the interruption but obviously he didn’t realize that I was looking at her as if to say, “Get a grip!” Yes, nerves do travel down the leash. I am normally very calm but she was ruining my chi. And for the record, did she really have to make me stay up all night and listen to that book.
As I explained with Gus, the testing is part obedience and part aptitude. Charley breezed through the basic obedience. He walked calmly by my side on a loose leash with all sorts of distractions around us. Nothing phased him. There were people going by in wheel chairs and walkers. Others were yelling and staggering before they came over and asked if they could pet him. I, on the other hand, jumped about a foot off the floor when someone dropped a book behind us. When it was time to have the evaluator brush him, someone else hug him and a few people pet him at the same time, he acted as if he was at the spa.
We only had one little snag. There is an exercise on the evaluation called “neutral dog.” Two handlers approach each other from several feet away, shake hands, say, “what’s up?” and continue walking past each other. Charley wasn’t supposed to show more than casual interest in the other dog.
As luck would have it, the neutral dog was a cute Golden Retriever and Charley has a thing for cute Golden Retrievers. He did everything short of ask her for a date. If I had to guess, I’d say he got her phone number. Fortunately we were only scored down a point.
I was overjoyed when we passed the test. It was partly because Charley was my very first, official therapy dog but even more so it was because we were considered a team. As a non-athletic kid who’d never done sports, this was my very first team and I was kind of like captain!
CHARLEY Captain? Are you kidding me? Her nerves were so bad at testing, I was ready to have a bowl of wine, and I rarely drink. And I think we all know who’s captain. By the way, I did get the cute Golden Retriever’s phone number.