Yentas by Proxy

In my June post A Different Dynamic, I wrote about how much Charley’s passing had changed the rhythm of the pack, especially during our walks. Now there is a new twist. It seems that two fluffy white dogs instead of three are less intimidating. People feel even more comfortable stopping to chat. And yes, I’m a yenta so I probably encourage it.

As soon as anyone approaches, Gus immediately cuddles up to them with tail wagging and a smile on his face. Elbee, as we know, is the canine answer to Mariah Carey. He will still sometimes do his obnoxious bark but he loves being noticed.

ELBEE Excuse me. I have a lot to say. If Pack Leader would pay attention, I wouldn’t have to repeat myself.

People get so comfortable petting the Doods that they talk about all sorts of personal things.

ELBEE Maybe because she brags to everyone we meet that we’re therapy dogs. 

One woman asked if I was a dog walker. When I said no, she looked a little disappointed. Then she explained that she needed help with her own dog because she was having shoulder problems. She was only putting off surgery because she had heart issues. We took off before I heard the rest of her medical history.

Then there was the woman working in the garden in front of her house. As she was petting Gus and Elbee, she went into a diatribe about her crazy neighbor across the street. If it was all true, I’m never walking over that way again.

A man passing by on a busy street suddenly stopped to see the dogs. After a casual conversation, he began sharing or maybe oversharing about his divorce and how it was all his fault. Apparently, he really wanted to win her back. I think he kept petting them so that I would commiserate or offer advice.

ELBEE She takes us for a walk and all of a sudden she’s “Dear Abby” of the street. What concerns me is that I’m becoming a yenta by association. Just look at this picture. And I’m starting to have a lot more opinions.

 

 

 

GUS I’m just a nice, friendly kid…kind of a people pleaser. I don’t know how I keep getting caught up in all of this stuff. I don’t want to be accused of aiding and abetting a yenta. Would I have to get the lawyer daughter to defend me?

Aside from all of the conversations, we get some very interesting commentary. An older man, possibly homeless (yes I’m judging) passed us and said, “Oh it’s the foofy dogs and the lady with the foofy hair.”

ME AND ELBEE Really??

 

Perhaps my favorite was an elderly lady driving an “elderly” Mercedes who pulled up next to us and rolled down her window. As she puffed on a cigarette and coughed, she said, “You and the dogs add a lot of class to the neighborhood.”

 

 

 

 

Notes from Grandma Land

My grandson Ryan is about to become a teenager. Being a writing hoarder, I recently found something that I wrote years ago when I was helping out by taking him to pre-school. Sorry but the Doods are going to be left out this week, although Ryan and Charley were each around three at the time and growing up together.

ELBEE That’s it. I’m finding a new blog.

 

I’m going to share it just as I jotted it down long ago in that classroom.

Help, I’m trapped in pre-school Hell, a sub-division of Grandma Land. I’m sitting on a cushion on the floor that I’m guessing is filled with rocks, trying to be invisible or as least extremely boring. This is in the hopes that my grandson will disengage and play with the other children rather than grab me in a choke hold. A hold, by the way, that I think has been banned by LAPD.

Many decades ago when the three daughters were starting pre-school, the system was simple. You dropped them off and left them screaming as you skulked away. At that point you had choices. You could sit in your car crying hysterically because your baby was growing up. You could be wracked with guilt because you had just left your offspring with near strangers which also involved hysterical crying. Or, as was the case when I left the youngest, I did the happy dance in the parking lot singing “freedom, freedom, freedom” and then went shopping. Okay so I didn’t win mother of the year but I did find a fabulous pair of shoes.

There were exceptions. I had a friend who was expecting her oldest daughter to have great separation anxiety. Instead, when Sally (her name has been changed in solidarity with moms everywhere and to avoid lawsuits) dropped off Susie (also a fake name), the child turned to her and said “See you later, mom.” Sally ran to her car and sobbed because she had enough separation anxiety for both of them. Looking back, there was so much drama in that parking lot a therapist could have cleaned up!

But I digress. Back to my invisible grandma spot on the floor. In a cage to my left is a mean looking albino guinea pig the size of a small dog. It has a smaller black and white accomplice. I would almost swear the two are conspiring to escape and bite me. I must seem like an easy mark because I’m glued to my pillow spot. I wonder if guinea pigs carry rabies.

ELBEE She’s sharing about guinea pigs instead of me. I’m getting an agent.

Facing me in a cute little toy stroller is an anatomically correct doll. He, yes he, is naked except for a piece of plastic pizza draped unceremoniously across his chest. Considering myself to be a fairly hip grandma, I still feel a little behind the times. After all, when the daughters were small they had gender non-specific dolls who could only be identified by hair and wardrobe.

I am happy to report that despite my presence or non-presence, Ryan made it through pre-school with flying colors. I would like to add that he has always had a special bond with the Doods. Are you happy Elbee?

ELBEE For the record, I have been his favorite for years.

 

Ryan is also the wonderful young man who made this touching photo tribute for Charley when he passed.

 

Confessions of a Therapy Dogaholic

This week I decided to rework the post that started it all, Confessions of a Happy Dogaholic. Only a few people saw it because I was nervous about showing it to anyone. Now that I’ve overshared all over the place, I thought why not this too.

ELBEE Personally I think it was just a slow news day.

It’s no secret that I’m obsessed with the dogs. I talk about them incessantly which I’m sure is why so many people encouraged me to write about them in the first place. They were probably hoping I’d shut up and stop talking about them.

ELBEE Good luck with that. Wait, it’s about us. Keep talking.

There were even one or two people who hinted that I might want to join some sort of 12-step program. That was never going to happen. We all know that I enjoy my dog addiction. It’s not causing liver damage and I really can’t get with the whole anonymous concept. Hey, remember, in the 80’s and 90’s I was a competitive bodybuilder. Does that scream anonymous on any level?

ELBEE Where does she find these things?? I threatened to boycott this blog and even offered not to bark for a year if she’d stop. I give up.

GUS I shouldn’t admit it but I’m kind of starting to like them. I think all the therapy has really helped me cope.

 

Hey, old habits die hard. I often wondered what had triggered my love of dogs but didn’t have an “aha” moment until one day when I was looking at some of my baby pictures. Two things jumped out at me. First, I was a really unattractive baby. Second, there was some sort of adorable dog in almost every photo.

In retrospect, I think they were an attempt to distract from my looks. I also have a suspicion that they were rented or borrowed since they seemed to vary from month to month. My mother was so sweet and kind, I’m sure she was trying to help me out. At least with the cute dog/ugly baby thing going on, people had something to work with. They could say, “aw how darling” and still pass a lie detector test.

Today I am grateful to all of those anonymous dogs and to the ones who actually were our pets like Killer, the sweetest Cocker Spaniel in the world. From the time I was a little girl, they turned me into an animal lover. I am even more grateful to the late Charley and to Elbee and Gus.

ELBEE Excuse me. A great name like Killer and I get stuck with Elbee.

I’ve written that there are pivotal moments in life. Being a passenger in a near-fatal car accident was one of mine. Another was the very first time that I walked into UCLA Medical Center with Charley by my side. So thank you to the Doods, even you Elbee, for turning me into a therapy dogaholic.

 

 

 

 

 

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.”

 

The Diva Is Back!

ELBEE Finally a post about me. In respect for Charley’s passing, I have been like a saint waiting my turn.

 

I was hiking with my friend Dennis, solving the world’s problems, when I asked him if he thought the term “diva” had become gender neutral. He said it probably had because  the only divo that came to mind was the singing group Il Divo. Then, never having met a pun he didn’t like, Dennis added that Elbee could have been a “barkitone.” Don’t groan at me. I warned you.

ELBEE Good one. You go Dennis!

It suddenly occurred to me that each of the Doods works in a way that is comparable to a different singer.

ELBEE Where is she going with this?

 

 

 

GUS Even I’m confused.

 

Charley was the classical singer with the most beautiful voice. He was like the Josh Groban of therapy dogs. He could touch your soul. Gus is like the child with the sweet angelic voice that wins hearts and talent shows.

Charley and Gus as a Duo

Which brings me to Elbee. He is the ultimate diva. Whereas Charley and Gus often “sang” as an amazing duo, Elbee is a soloist. He is the Mariah Carey of therapy dogs.

ELBEE OMG I may cry. I love Mariah Carey.

Last week was no exception. He was so happy to be at UCLA that he was even more over the top than usual. It was like he was finally back on tour. He didn’t just walk into the hospital. He made an entrance. When the kids in the neuropsych units sat on the floor, he flopped into their laps. After he did his tricks, he was more concerned with the applause than with the treats.

As I watched him bask in the attention, I realized that he would probably love to have a personal assistant. Then it dawned on me. I am his personal assistant. I chauffeur him, get him food and water, clean up his poop. I don’t get paid enough for this job. Which reminds me, someone who saw us in the hospital asked if I rented him.

It’s hard to believe that Elbee almost didn’t become a therapy dog. When he was a puppy, I contracted a serious virus that had me laid up for months. Most of his time was spent in the house with me. One day when I was finally able to take him for a short walk, I noticed that he was backing up and shying from people. I later learned that I had missed his crucial socialization period at 12 weeks.

If Charley hadn’t been a therapy dog for a few years and if I wasn’t hoping to have another one, I might have given up. Instead I became a woman on a mission. I took Elbee everywhere with me. If someone so much as glanced in his direction, I asked them to say hello and give him a treat. Bike riders in the mountains, strangers on the street, yes, even a few homeless people helped to shape the dog that he is today.

Looking back, did I go to far? Did I create the diva?

ELBEE She may have helped, but I was born fabulous! 

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.

 

 

 

Hearts and Doodles

In last Monday’s post I mentioned that this week I would be writing about the Doods’ purpose. Then Valentines Day came along and I had a change of “heart.”

THE DOODS Is it just us or do Pack Leader’s jokes keep getting lamer. If we knew how, we’d do the eye roll.

A few months ago, UCLA did photo shoots with the dogs in the People Animal Connection for valentine cards. On the holiday, the dogs (and their people) distributed them to patients and staff.

THE DOODS Don’t get us wrong. We appreciate the thought behind it and the fact that they wanted to feature us and our canine colleagues, but do you see these? We’re therapy dogs, not clowns. 

And as if those weren’t bad enough, take a look at this one. Someone is turning into a stage mother. At least we have  proof that she put us into these ridiculous get ups. I wonder if we should contact the lawyer daughter to see if we can sue her for something like embarrassment.

 

Speaking of daughters, Nicole, the middle one and our favorite, got Pack Leader back on track. She told P.L. that she should be writing about our wonderful hearts.

 

 

Okay, enough already. I give up. Let me tell you briefly about the beautiful heart of each Dood.

Charley, the senior Dood, has an intuitive heart. He has always had the gift of being able to sense who needs him the most. He will then gently push himself against them. No one who has experienced the Charley “lean” ever forgets it. It’s like a magical hug.

Elbee is a bit of a show off with the heart of a joker. His antics seem designed to draw attention. His gift is to make everyone laugh and forget their difficult surroundings. If he doesn’t get the crowd reaction he’s going for, he’ll flop into someone’s lap.

Gus, at barely three years old, has a heart of pure sweetness. At work, he cuddles with people and seems to know just when to give someone a soft lick on the cheek. When we adopted him, we were told he was a Teddy Bear Doodle. With his cute dog smile, he truly is like a little, lovable stuffed animal.

My parents, who passed away when I was quite young, had a special way to sign every card and note to each other. At the very end, they would write A.K.A.A.S. My mother even had a charm on her bracelet with those letters.

They stood for “a kiss and a smile.” As I thought about those words on Valentines Day, it suddenly dawned on me that in a certain way they so poignantly summed up the Doods and all of their loving interactions.