By: Mary Merchant
In the 25 years that I’ve been active in Pet Therapy, I’ve tested more than a hundred dogs, mentored countless new teams - and personally partnered with twelve different Therapy Dogs of my own. All have brought special gifts to their work. Each has demonstrated how healing is both a life-time’s task, and a moment’s grace. Maureen has asked me to share a few of their stories in this guest blog.
Dazzle was a truly outstanding Therapy Dog - a beautiful purebred Collie who worked for many years throughout the North Bay hospital - and taught me that healing can still occur, even when hope is gone. On one exceptional occasion, she demonstrated the power of staying completely in the moment, and making the most of it, to the very end. We had been called in suddenly, at the nursing staff’s request, to see a new patient in the Intensive Care Unit.
Dazzle settled into the chair and for a long moment just looked at this unresponsive man beside her. Then she slowly leaned forward and touched her nose to his cheek. A moment later, she turned away and looked closely at the bedside ventilator helping him breathe. She touched that, too, with her nose. A moment more passed, then Dazzle shifted forward, nudging the patient again and, looking at him very intently. He in turn, had begun watching her every move. Just then, the patient began to chuckle - a harsh, crackling sound, but clearly a chuckle nonetheless, continuing for several laboured breaths. In response, Dazzle began to hover a front paw over the bed’s surface. With staff encouragement, I gave her the ‘go up’ cue - all the while praying that dear Dazzle, who adored bounding enthusiastically onto our bed at home, wouldn’t disconnect any tubes as she climbed aboard. I needn’t have worried. She crept carefully to the end of the bed, turned around to face the patient, and propped her head on his lifeless feet, while she gazed steadily into his eyes. He, in turn, looked right back at her for many silent moments...With her patient past any hope of what’s commonly called ‘healing’, Dazzle had quietly accomplished the extraordinary. In the face of impending death, she summoned up that life-affirming chuckle. And a dying man’s wife heard the sound of her husband’s laughter one more precious time. A gift of healing for them both, even when ‘hope was gone’.
Deva, one of my current Therapy Dog partners, is Dazzle’s great-great-great grandniece, making her kin as well to Colonel. Very different in appearance - she is petite and blue merle (silver/black and white) while he was statuesque and pale gold, still they share the skill of retrieving memories and healing hearts. On our way to visit a patient on the Surgical unit not too long ago, Deva and I were stopped by a visitor emerging from a patient’s room. Clearly distraught already, the sight of Deva seemed to have startled her somehow. “Please, can you bring the dog in to see my mother? She’s dying - and that dog, well, it’s the spitting image of her old dog, Skittles.” We went in right away and assisted Deva/Skittles onto the bed, where she inched her way up to lie snug against the elderly woman’s side. “See, Mom - it’s Skittles. She’s come back to be with you”, the daughter choked out. Mom smiled and whispered to the dog at her side, her frail hand stroking through familiar fur, just as she’d done many times before.
Dazzle, Colonel, Deva - all exemplary healers, bringing the healing gifts of wholeness and closure in loving service to Life. I count myself richly blessed to have shared their journeys - and their stories.