88: When the Dogs Come

88: When the Dogs Come

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Very Good, Very Bad Dog

When the Dogs Come

Fun fact: The word “schnauzer” means “walrus moustache” in German.

I adopted Ebony, a black Miniature Schnauzer, from a local shelter. It quickly became obvious her past must have included some sort of trauma. My heart went out to her. She kept her head low and seldom made even the slightest sound. Although she would climb eagerly into my lap, she tucked in her tail when she was around people she didn’t know.

The shelter’s adoption counselor suggested I take Ebony to obedience classes. It would help her become more confident when she needed to interact with other people and dogs. This didn’t sound appealing to me, but for Ebony’s sake, I swallowed my own reluctance and signed us up to begin the next course.

At the first class, Ebony and I tangled around each other during every exercise. It seemed we’d never achieve the smooth precision demonstrated by the trainer. But with each passing week, we worked together more efficiently. It wasn’t long before I smiled proudly with the other participants when our instructor took a group graduation picture. Best of all, I noticed Ebony had begun to lift her head higher and didn’t shy away from strangers. We attended another series of classes. Then we went on to complete a Canine Good Citizen course. When the instructor handed me Ebony’s certificate, he had a surprising suggestion.

“Ebony has such a sweet personality. I think she’d be a natural for our pet visiting team. Would you come with us on Saturday when we visit the Twin Oaks assisted-living facility?”

I hesitated before answering. It wasn’t that I didn’t think Ebony could do it. She’d blossomed during our training classes. Rather, I worried about how I’d handle visiting with the elderly and frail residents who could no longer live in their own homes. I had no clue what I should say to them. But the trainer’s hopeful face made me put aside my fears and agree.

On Saturday, I dragged my feet along the sidewalk to Twin Oaks, reminding myself that we had only committed to one visit. Fortunately, my feelings didn’t travel down the leash to Ebony. She wore a colorful bandana, and her ears were perked up at attention. She trotted forward as though on a mission.

Inside, a group of people had already gathered in the sun-filled visiting area. Some were seated in chairs and others in wheelchairs. I watched as one of the handlers began talking to a resident. Ebony waited patiently at my feet until I took a deep breath and walked toward a woman in a wheelchair near the back of the group. I smiled at her.

“Hello. Would you like to pet Ebony?”

The woman’s faded blue eyes were fixed on my dog. She smiled and patted her lap. Words weren’t necessary for me to understand what she wanted. I lifted Ebony and settled her carefully on the woman’s thin legs. She smoothed Ebony’s fur from head to tail, over and over in a soothing rhythm. The woman’s face beamed. She repeated the same words.

“Just like Sadie. Just like Sadie.”

A neatly dressed woman appeared beside me. She wore a badge identifying her as Doris, the facility’s Activities Director. Doris whispered, “That’s Berta. She has trouble remembering things and sometimes is a bit withdrawn. But when the dogs come, it really lifts her spirit.”

Berta was completely absorbed with Ebony, sometimes uttering sounds I couldn’t fully understand. Ebony lay on Berta’s lap without squirming or changing position. It was as though she sensed that now was the time to be still and simply let Berta touch her. I knelt beside the wheelchair and watched Berta’s face soften and her eyes begin to sparkle. Suddenly, my worries about how to act or what to say seemed inconsequential.

By the time we left Twin Oaks, I agreed to continue making weekly visits. Ebony’s ability to connect with the residents convinced me we had to return. My dog had traveled from fear to confidence and even acquired a job she loved. I only needed to tie a bandana around her neck to see her tail wag.

When the dogs entered the room, they transformed it. Downturned faces and listless arms changed to wide-open eyes and hands outstretched like colorful day lilies unfolding in the morning sun. My own self-doubts disappeared, and strangers turned into friends.

I realized being part of a pet visiting team didn’t require extraordinary skill. It only took a smile, an open heart, and the healing power of a dog’s love.

~Pat Wahler

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