Does this Picture Make Me Look Short?

The good news is that, unlike last year (You Did What? 11/7/16), this Halloween I didn’t give any interviews to Telemundo in Spanish. Despite the fact that I’m probably on a gag reel somewhere, I have to admit that I’m disappointed that I haven’t been asked to do a cameo on a telenovela.

THE DOODS Aye Dios mío!

 

 

This Halloween, as soon as I heard that Brandon Ingram and Larry Nance Jr., two of the Lakers, would be joining the People Animal Connection at Mattel Children’s Hospital, I got Marsha the groomer on speed dial. I wanted to make sure she could do purple and gold trim on Gus. A shout out to her son Ryan who, as you can see, did a fabulous job. Then I found the shirt and the collar. Could it get any better?

The day of the event got off to a good start. In the UCLA lobby,  “Laker” Gus ran into his crush, “Laker Girl” Coogee.

 

 

 

When we arrived on the fifth floor of Mattel, the atmosphere was electric. The two Lakers were shaking hands, signing autographs and handing out candy. With dogs, parents, staff and most of all smiling children, even some who were seriously ill, it was easy to forget where you were.

I have been a Laker fan forever, even though the last few years have been rough, so how could I not ask for a photo. For the record, Ingram is listed at 6’9″ and Morrow is listed at 5’3″ and shrinking. As for Gus, we don’t want to go there.

Does this picture make me look short?

 

 

 

 

 

 

As always, there were special moments when I took Gus down the hall to do some individual visits. We were about to walk in to see a little boy when Gus suddenly pulled away, ran into the room and jumped on the bed. Despite the fact that we were breaking every rule, I could see how delighted the patient was. I looked at him and said, “I guess he really likes you!” With a big laugh, he responded, ” I can see that!”

Our last visit was to a sad looking young girl who was in isolation. When that’s the case we don’t go into the room. Instead we visit and show them the dogs from the doorway. I figured that a few of Gus’s tricks would be in order. By the time he danced, played peek-a-boo and waved, the giggling child was waving back at him.

Thank you to the Laker’s for helping to cheer up so many people. Thank you to the super hero who joined us. Sorry, I’m not sure who it was but the kids did! Above all, thank you to our amazing four legged super heroes. They used their magic powers to turn a difficult hospital day into a very happy and festive Halloween!

 

 

 

An Unexpected Smile

 

This week the Doods worked their special brand of magic at the adult health center that we visit. As I shared in my September 11th post, it’s a facility where people ranging in age from their 20’s up to their 80’s spend their days. Many are dealing with issues such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, PTSD or depression. Others have severe physical disabilities.

From the moment the chime sounded as we entered the front door, Elbee and Gus were on their game. They seemed more excited than usual in their interactions with the core of regulars and the staff members who were waiting to greet them. Gus even started to do a few tricks on his own.

Once in the main room, we slowly made our way around, stopping to chat with several of the people we’ve come to know over the past few years. Many sit in their usual spots waiting for me to bring the dogs over. Others will let me know with a simple gesture that they’d like a visit. One very sweet girl who has Downs Syndrome absolutely loves Gus and Elbee and will often follow us around.

At one point, we approached a few people seated on a sofa, including a man in his late 50’s whom we’ve seen many times. He’s usually very quiet and although he doesn’t seem uncomfortable around the dogs, he never really interacts with them. On this particular day, however, as Gus started to do his “dance,” the man suddenly smiled. He continued to smile as I let him give them each a treat.

At that moment, Lisa, a clinical consultant, happened to be walking by and stopped in her tracks. She looked at the man and asked in pleasant surprise, “Did I just see you smile?” I could sense how excited she was.

Coincidentally, Lisa is the person who found me and the Doods and invited us to the center. She is also one of the kindest people you would ever hope to meet. It wasn’t until a few minutes later when I was in her office talking to her and one of the nurses, that I found out how momentous this was. The man had severe depression and they hadn’t seen him smile in a year!

I was so moved and thought the morning couldn’t get any more emotional. I was wrong. As I was getting ready to leave, a sad looking young man who had been sitting alone at a table all morning, waved me over. When I asked if he wanted to see the dogs, he said, “No, I just wanted you to know how sorry I was to hear about your big dog Charley.” His words were so simple and sincere, they brought tears to my eyes.

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.

 

 

Me, the Mountains and the Stick

The mountains are my sanctuary, my think tank and my personal fitness center. I’m so comfortable up there that even my sense of direction is better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ELBEE That’s not saying a lot. Sometimes we pee on trees to make sure we can find our way back.

Okay, I may be pushing it but I figured I’d better justify this post because I’ll probably get some static from my daughter/mothers. They think I have a little streak of crazy but I prefer to call it a streak of adventure.

Awhile ago, I found a stick that gives me a certain sense of security. I started carrying it whenever I’m hiking alone. I use it for balance and for checking under rocks but figure I can use it as a weapon if I ever have to. I would share a picture of the stick but I don’t want anyone questioning my sanity or laughing at me. And no, I don’t think it has magic powers.

ELBEE Let me put it in perspective. If I fetched, which I don’t, the stick would almost be too ridiculous for me to bring back.

I was walking on dirt Mulholland when I decided to take the stick and head up a ridge trail that only the “regulars” use. For the record,  I’ve done it countless times. I was enjoying the climb, watching at least twenty ravens soaring over the canyon, putting on a spectacular air show.

Then there it was, right in front of me, a big rattlesnake. As you may know I’m not a huge fan of snakes but I do respect them and try not to bother them. This one, however, started getting on my nerves. It wouldn’t budge so that I could go by. Finally, I gave it a gentle nudge with the stick and it took off.

Snake on the Ridge
Relative of the Snake on the Ridge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I started climbing again, using the stick to make sure that none of the snake’s relatives were hiding in the rocks or bushes. Unfortunately, as I got near the top, I missed one little turn and instead of arriving back on the main trail, ended up looking down a mini cliff.

ELBEE She was probably “rattled ” after meeting the snake.

GUS Good one Elbee!

Since I had absolutely no desire to back track, I decided it was “doable” and slowly slid my way down. FYI: I’m writing this post from my house and not from a hospital bed.

Seriously, I am truly appreciative of my ability to climb these beautiful trails, especially with the wild fires that have been ravaging California. I also have such gratitude for my health and for my sense of adventure, which I admit has grown stronger as I’ve gotten older. I think that challenging yourself is a way to feel vibrant and alive, no matter your age.

It’s like the grandpa in the commercial who tells his wife he’s going fishing and then goes surfing with his grandson. I totally get it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How’d Ya Do That?!

Recently I was waiting in the lobby of a hospital while one of the daughters was having surgery. A woman with a Golden Retriever approached and quietly asked if I’d like to meet a therapy dog. Since I have never really had a visit from a therapy dog other than the Doods, who we all know are my live in therapists, I was fascinated. It was so interesting to be on the receiving end of the visit.

The interaction was lovely, not a term I use loosely, and one that has probably never been used to describe me. If I’m being honest, the Doods and I are more of a circus act. Although I will never go as far as the handler I saw who dresses like a clown. I’m terrified of clowns. Anyhow, the woman and I chatted as her very sweet dog rested its head in my lap. It made me realize that the style of visit is probably unique to each team.                                                                  

Speaking of style, take a look at this photo. It really has absolutely nothing to do with this post but I had to share. And if you want to know who’s responsible for this look, check out the middle daughter hiding her head.

 

 

 

ELBEE For the record, notice that I’m also hiding my head even though I’m torn. I’m not sure if this is sad or fabulous. I will admit that I’m strangely jealous.

Seriously, some interactions are determined by the personalities of the dog and the handler and others are determined by the situation. The common thread is that the dogs bring about results that can’t be easily explained. The young boy who hasn’t smiled in a week grinning from ear to ear. The man who awakens from a coma and remembers the presence of the dogs in his bed. The aggressive teen who ends up hugging a visiting dog. There is no simple answer.

Maybe it’s the time of year with Yom Kippur as a day of remembrance, but my thoughts turned to my brother Stan, who as I’ve shared in earlier posts, passed away from cancer when he was in his forties. Stan was a tv director who did magic as a hobby. He was so often asked, “How’d ya do that?”(and by the way, he would never tell me) that he used the phrase on a business card. A laminated version of that card has been hanging on a hook in my garage for the twenty years or so that he’s been gone.

As I glanced at it the other day, it dawned on me that what all of our amazing therapy dogs do is actually magic. Sometimes it’s close up magic as they cuddle with a sick child or help a patient forget her pain. Other times it’s stage magic as they entertain a group in the neuropsych units, charm a class of school students or distract an anxious family waiting to hear about a loved one in surgery. We may not put it into words, but as you watch the dogs in action, you have to wonder, “How’d ya do that?”

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Return to the Scene of the “Crime”

During a recent heat wave I decided to head to the beach with the dogs. Since I have no patience for sitting on the sand, I thought that Santa Monica would be perfect. The pier is a tourist attraction with lots of activity. Even better, there’s a pedestrian path that goes down to Venice.

ELBEE That sounded good to me. I like the beach although I’m not much of a surfer. I was, however, a little suspicious when I heard that Venice was on the agenda.

As soon as we walked up the steps to the pier, Gus and Elbee, with all of their hair blowing in the breeze, were surrounded by people. I lost count of how many wanted to take pictures. All that was missing were the “puparazzi.”

ELBEE I knew she couldn’t resist that lame joke. By the way, I’m pretty sure I saw Kendall Jenner and another model type on the pier. They had their own professional camera man with them. Why didn’t I?

Things stayed interesting on the ocean path. An adorable toddler in big sunglasses came over to pet the dogs. Two seemingly drunk men asked if I knew where there was a liquor store. Someone yelled out “Look at those diva dogs.”

ELBEE He was obviously very astute. 

 

 

 

That last remark was our welcome to Venice Beach which is a crazy, fascinating place that has become even messier since the last time I was there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still, I couldn’t resist posing the Doods for these touristy photos.

As if!!
Just embarrassing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ELBEE As for the one on the right, I don’t know which is worse, that she took the picture or that she’s sharing it here. And take a look at this one below. They’re opening a Muscle Beach History Museum! I think Pack Leader is hoping to secure a place. What is she? Arnold?

To be honest, I’m not sure if Venice Beach is the site of my former glory or of my former crime against “carpool momdom.” I had done a few bodybuilding shows before I competed there but they were sort of under the radar. The first was in Fresno. The other one or two were in places that no one in my daily life except my family would know about. Competing in Venice was like “Woo hoo, here I am.”

GUS “Woo hoo?” I don’t even say that.

To make it even better, Nicole, the middle daughter, was turning eleven and wanted to have her birthday party at the show. She probably wasn’t old enough to be embarrassed. To this day I wonder what the other parents thought about it. At least no one called child protective services.

Nicole had one special request. She asked if everyone could sing Happy Birthday to her if I won. I mentioned it to the emcee who loved the idea and brought Nicole up on stage as soon as I became Ms. Venice Beach.

ELBEE That was subtle.

 

Seeing the microphone in my face is probably disconcerting to anyone who knows about my singing. The good news is that with a thousand people in the crowd, no one could hear me.

 

 

THE DOODS Amen to that. Remember, we’ve heard her in the car.

 

 

The Doods Make the Day

 

For the past few years, I’ve been taking the Doods to an adult health center. Close to 100 people, ranging in age from their 20’s up to their 70’s and a few in their eighties, spend their days at the facility. Many are dealing with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, PTSD, dementia or depression. Others have severe physical disabilities.

A chime sounds as we walk in the front door and the dogs are instantly greeted by an excited crowd. There is a core of regulars who know the Doods and wait for their arrival as soon as they see them on the schedule. The appreciative staff members are always there to welcome us.

The center offers a wide range of activities. For instance, there are discussion and anger management groups, as well as light exercise or physical therapy sessions. Between activities, however, some just sit waiting at the long lunch tables or sprawl on couches scattered around the room. A few chat with each other while many keep to themselves.

I never quite know what to expect once we get to the central area. A sad looking man will suddenly get up from the couch, smile and start petting the dogs. An agitated woman will calm down and hug them. The people at the lunch tables will call out for me to bring them over. There is a ripple effect of positivity and happiness. There is more conversation.

Many of the regulars have an established routine with the Doods. Some of their interactions may seem odd but it’s moving to watch them reach out to the dogs. For a few minutes they forget their struggles as Elbee and Gus offer unconditional love and acceptance. There is no judgment.

One man always apologizes for not having dog treats. I slip him a few to feed the ever hungry Elbee. There is an elderly woman who often cries when she holds Gus but I was told that was her way of letting her emotions out. There is another man who runs over as soon as he sees us to tell me what wonderful dogs they are and how much he likes them. He just doesn’t want to touch them because he’s afraid he’ll get fleas.

ELBEE Normally I would be offended but under the circumstances, I understand.

There is one very handsome, physically handicapped young man who truly touches my heart. He is in a motorized wheelchair which he can operate despite extremely crippled hands. He speaks with difficulty but understands everything. He has a smile that lights up his face.

He always stays in one place at a lunch table so I bring the dogs to him. He was able to reach Charley and now Elbee but I pick up Gus so that he can pet him. We’ve even worked out a way for me to fit treats between his fingers so that he can feed them.

Due to life happening, last week was the first time that I’d been there in awhile. I could immediately sense how glad he was to see the dogs but it was something so simple that let me know how much he really cared. Instead of remaining at the table, he made the effort to move his chair to follow us around the room. It was a special morning.

A well deserved rest

 

 

 

 

 

The Hair of the Dog

ELBEE That may be the worst title that Pack Leader has ever come up with and trust me there have been some bad ones. I don’t even think she knows what it means. Being a dog about town, I admit that I’ve indulged in a morning after Bloody Mary or two.

I think that hair can make a huge difference in the way you feel. The right haircut can change your whole outlook. On a good hair day, my attitude is better. I’m more productive, more positive. I could talk my way out of a traffic ticket (that was a long time ago). On a bad hair day, I just stick on a baseball hat and hide from people I know at the market.

ELBEE Excuse me, my baseball hat is a fashion choice.  I rarely have a bad hair day.

Oh wait, this post was supposed to be about Gus, not me, but obviously I have hair issues.

ELBEE She has her hairdresser on speed dial!

I was planning to write about Gus because I’ve let his hair grow and it has totally changed the way people respond to him. I used to keep him cut short because, although he’s non-shedding, he can get a lot of knots. It was just easier. As his coat grew, I realized how much cuter he looked. Other people noticed too. He started to draw more attention, a big plus when you’re a therapy dog.

Old Gus

 

New Gus

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ELBEE My hair has always been long and fabulous but Pack Leader did the same thing to me with pigtails. To be honest, I used to  hate them but now I’ve come to embrace them. And how about this look? It’s fitting for the diva I am.

At UCLA, someone who knew him well, saw the long haired version and asked if I’d gotten another dog. His new look is a great conversation starter, especially when the weather is humid and his hair sticks out even more. A woman who was petting him commented that his coat was “magical.”

I really noticed a difference when Gus arrived for his visits in the neuropsych units. He’s called a Teddy Bear Doodle (not sure what that is) and the kids began to react to him as if he was a stuffed animal. They wanted to hold him and cuddle with him. One boy offered me $68 dollars to buy him and another told me that he was going to hide Gus in his room.

Along with his popularity, Gus has acquired his share of nicknames. Like Elbee, he’s been called a sheep and poofy dog. Then there was that unfortunate fluff monster reference. When his ears and tail were blue for the Dodger game, someone remarked that he was like a giant blueberry.

ELBEE Don’t forget that another person said he looked like a member of an 80’s hair band. 

Rock on!

Gus I still don’t know what that means.

Last week in the hospital lobby, he was given perhaps his best name ever. Someone took one look at him and christened him, ” Little White Cloud.”

 

 

 

My Dog is My Therapist

Recently I saw a woman wearing this t-shirt: At first I thought it was funny. Then I realized it was absolutely true. I mean who knows more about me than the Doods? They’re with me most of the time. They eavesdrop on all of my conversations. They even follow me into the bathroom.

Looking back, Charley was my therapist for years. It totally explains the way he would sit and stare at me. It’s like the way a therapist sits and doesn’t speak, waiting for you to overshare so they can nod wisely and earn their money. I have absolutely nothing against therapists but Charley did it for free.

Coincidentally, soon after I saw the shirt, I was solving the New York Times crossword puzzle, something that I do daily in ink, and there was a clue that said, “Stereotypical response at a shrink.” The answer was, “I see.”

ELBEE Am I the only one who noticed that she had to drop in that she does the puzzle every day. Personally, I don’t think it’s that’s hard. And newsflash (that was a good one) I’ve heard her looking up answers on line.

With Charley gone, Elbee has taken over as chief therapist. Unfortunately he talks too much and has too many opinions. Gus doesn’t have the life experience but he tries.

ELBEE I will not even comment. I’ll tweet about it later.

That t-shirt reminded me of one that I’d seen at Venice Beach, scene of my bodybuilding glory.

ELBEE Here it comes. Just put up the photo and move on.

GUS What is that?

ELBEE I don’t even know where to start.

The shirt said, “Be the person that your dog thinks you are.” I guess it was supposed to be an inspirational, feel good saying. Obviously it was overlooking the fact that the Doods have heard my driving vocabulary and my singing in the car. Trust me, no one else hears me singing.

GUS That was singing?

I’m sure that Charley thought I needed him as my service dog but could never quite figure out what he was supposed to do for me. Elbee considers me a competing diva. Gus just thinks I’m his mother.

 

The Diva

ELBEE Remember, I’m the Mariah of the dog world. No one competes with me.

 

 

 

 

That shirt made me wonder how the daughters would describe me in a word or two.  It was obviously a moment of insanity because these are the same three women who wanted to sue me for writing “Top 12 Reasons Dogs Are Better than Children.”

I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised. Danielle, the youngest, said, “individual.” Nicole came up with “extraordinary.” Oh and then there was Jennifer who said “crazy,” with an adjective I can’t print, but “on a good day, eccentric.”

And yes, I will be buying each them a gift certificate to the store of her choice.