98: Silly Me

98: Silly Me

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Silly Me

Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.

~Roger Caras

It started with a phone call from my son, Nate. “Mom, there’s a dog here. She needs help. She’s lost, hungry and afraid of people. Nobody can catch her. We tried, but she runs. I bet you can catch her. Please?” My teenage son’s dramatic plea came from a visitor center where he volunteered.

“Not, now,” I objected. I love dogs, but at that moment I did not want to take on another project.

“Can you please just take a look at her when you come pick me up?” He had confidence in my abilities.

I agreed, and soon I was looking at a scraggly, mud-covered mongrel that was resting in the shade of a hundred-year-old oak tree. Scratching from hordes of fleas, ticks and mange, the dog watched intently as people came and went from the visitor center. If a person approached her, she wagged her tail, then tucked it and ran. She was medium-sized, gold and white, with warm, pleading, caramel-colored eyes. She wanted to connect but she was afraid.

Many years of working with all kinds of distressed animals had hardened my heart. I thought of a thousand reasons I could not take a mangy dog home. I already had three dogs and when one of those finally trotted over the rainbow bridge, I wanted to get a dog that I could use as a therapy dog. I could see that this sad dog was not therapy dog material. Therapy dogs connect to people in ways that transcend human understanding. I turned and walked away.

I convinced Nate to wait a few days to see if the dog’s owner would magically appear. Secretly, I was expecting the dog would disappear. She didn’t.

A friend with a small animal rescue shelter took her for quarantine and treatment. I knew she was safe but the dog’s eyes haunted me. That longing look kept returning to my mind, pleading for connection. After a couple of weeks, I succumbed and brought the dog home with me. She was quickly accepted by my “pack.” Cleaned up and fed, she resembled a stocky gold and white Border Collie. I named her Leala.

A project she was. For six months, Leala avoided human contact. She was not at all aggressive, but she was terribly afraid to be touched by people. Then suddenly, one day, Nate engaged her in play. It did not take long before she actually wanted to be petted by all the house-humans.

A month or so later, at a routine checkup, the vet said, “This is a really good dog. You do not see many like this.” His words opened my eyes to a new possibility.

Leala was kind to everyone, even the vet who stuck her with needles. Leala had quickly become the most well-behaved, sweetest dog I had ever owned. It was a stretch, but I wondered if she could be the therapy dog I had hoped for.

Within another month, Leala and I were in a therapy dog training class. She passed with flying colors. When we started making visits to nursing homes and mental hospitals, it was obvious Leala was one of those dogs that could relate to the internal pain so many people harbor. I do not know how it works but dogs can inspire hope in ways people cannot. I saw Leala do it.

On a visit to a children’s group physical therapy session, a nonverbal ten-year-old girl suffering from a degenerative physiological condition had become depressed and refused to use her walker anymore. She insisted on being pushed in a wheelchair. When we first arrived, I avoided the girl as she indicated adamantly that she did not want Leala anywhere near her.

But the girl closely watched Leala as other children in the group took turns “walking the dog.” I stood in the middle of the room with one long leash, while the kids held a second shorter leash and walked Leala in circles around me. Everyone, including Leala was having loads of fun.

Finally, the non-walking girl could not resist. She wanted a turn. She took hold of her walker, took the short leash, and away we went. She laughed and did not want to stop. Then she indicated she wanted to walk Leala without using her walker. Walking alone was a physical impossibility for this girl but a compassionate physical therapist walked behind the girl, supporting her under the arms.

Amazingly, the girl got even more adventurous. She indicated she wanted to leave the therapy room. So all four of us set off on a mini-adventure: the supporting therapist, the girl with the short leash, Leala and me with the long leash. We walked through the entire first floor of the hospital, through the lobby and down the halls. We all had a blast. When the girl left that day she was smiling. So was I.

I had my therapy dog. When I first looked into the warm caramel-colored eyes of that fearful, gold and white, flea-bitten dog resting under the tree, I did not dare to hope for an instant that she could be an outstanding therapy dog. Silly me.

~Jane Marie Allen Farmer

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