21: Choosing Ophelia

21: Choosing Ophelia

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Dog Did What?

Choosing Ophelia

Acquiring a dog may be the only time a person gets to choose a relative.

~Author Unknown

Ophelia is the dog we almost didn’t want. My son’s living arrangement wasn’t working out and, unable to find a place that allowed pets, he debated whether he could keep his new German Shepherd puppy. Adding to his stress were complications with his job and the ending of a long-term relationship.

I will never forget Barrett sitting on our kitchen floor with three-month-old Ophelia in his arms as we discussed the possibility of returning her to the breeder. “She’s such a wonderful dog,” he kept saying, while she looked up at him trustingly. There was an edge of grief in his voice.

After several discussions, my husband and I suggested Barrett move back home until he found a place to live. “But you don’t want a dog,” Barrett said.

He was right, we didn’t. “We’ll make it work,” I promised.

Ophelia arrived with her crate, toys, dishes, and puppy food. A timid little soul, she soaked up hugs and praise, and couldn’t seem to get enough of us. I braced myself for dog hair drifting across the floor, “toilet training” gone awry, chewed furniture, and a house that smelled doggy.

Accidents did happen; in fact, one morning I almost stepped in a large, fragrant one in the kitchen. She chewed through the phone cord and tore off a chunk of wallpaper with a ripping sound that brought me running. The vacuum cleaner remained permanently plugged in. Sometimes the house smelled like a dog.

But something else happened, too. A miraculous creature with a passion for stealing socks and an astounding capacity to give and receive love bounded into my heart. In my mind’s eye life is now divided into Before Ophelia and After Ophelia.

Before Ophelia, I was annoyed by a cupboard door left ajar. Before Ophelia, a speck on the couch was vacuumed immediately. And no one could wear shoes in the house Before Ophelia. After Ophelia, not even a dog hair floating in my coffee, or muddy paw prints on the sliding door fazed me.

Now a year old, Ophelia follows us from room to room, reluctant to be separated for even a few minutes. Her greeting when we come home is equally joyous, whether we’ve been gone half an hour or all day.

Her beautiful tail almost reaches the floor. Her huge ears stand up perfectly and her coat is glossy and soft except for a bit of unruly business on her back that swirls crazily like a cowlick and makes me laugh.

One day Ophelia and I were interviewed by Vicky, Recreation Manager and Volunteer Coordinator of Chateau Gardens, a long-term care residence. Ophelia’s enthusiastic interest in people and sweet spirit made her a good candidate for pet therapy.

“Where’s your leash?” I asked.

She looked at me, head cocked, expectation shining in her dark eyes.

“Get your leash, Ophelia,” I said. “Let’s go.”

She smiled (German Shepherds can mimic an owner’s smile), bounced out of the room and came back, carrying her leash in her mouth, tail wagging excitedly; at fifty-nine centimetres that tail has sent cups on the coffee table crashing to the floor.

She took up the entire back seat of my Echo, ears brushing the roof, and watched as I fastened my seatbelt and turned the key.

Vicky met us outside and we sat on a bench where Ophelia promptly decided to leap on me. Vicky laughed, which seemed to egg on Ophelia. She rolled on her back, legs in the air and began chewing on her leash.

“Ophelia!” I said sternly. This wasn’t going the way I envisioned.

As we chatted, Ophelia jumped on Vicky, tried to chase a bird, and ripped open her bag of treats. By now my reassurances that she was well behaved sounded feeble and contrived.

But Vicky was encouraging and gave Ophelia a pat on the head before sending us on our way with paperwork to fill out. We were scheduled for our first visit in a few weeks; Torin, a resident with multiple sclerosis, couldn’t wait to see us.

To my surprise, Torin appeared to be in his forties and beamed at us despite a debilitating battle with his disease. Before coming to live at Chateau Gardens, he owned a German Shepherd named Whitney. Giving her up broke his heart; and when he heard she’d been put down, the wound was ripped open again.

Ophelia eagerly entered Torin’s room, ears up and tail wagging. She snuffled his hand, into which I’d placed a doggy treat, put her paws on his pillow to get closer and then, to everyone’s astonishment, made a gigantic leap into his hospital bed and lay down beside him.

I stood there, wondering in a sort of panic if such a thing was allowed and what the staff would do, but they crowded into the room and began clapping. Although Torin’s body had betrayed and trapped him, it couldn’t quite contain his laughter. He grinned and shook with almost soundless delight and tried to pet Ophelia with a pale, uncooperative hand. Ophelia put her head on her paws and snuggled closer.

I wouldn’t have expected Ophelia to be such a natural for pet therapy. She is, after all, just a year old and brimming with energy, yet she’s endlessly curious and gentle with the residents. She hops on their beds, pokes her head into purses, licks frail, trembling hands, does tricks for treats (her high-five is everyone’s favourite), and gladly accepts petting and fondling. When I brought in cupcakes to celebrate Ophelia’s first birthday, an elderly woman in a wheelchair couldn’t stop giggling as Ophelia carefully licked all the icing off her fingers and then drank the water out of a Styrofoam cup she was holding.

Next month Ophelia and I are scheduled to begin orientation with the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program. The program has grown to become a recognized leader in animal-assisted therapy and is a wonderful opportunity for the two of us to work even more closely together, providing comfort and companionship.

To me, Ophelia is much more than a dog. She’s a reminder each day that challenges are meant to be met as a family; the overwhelming and impossible become the strong, true lines and spacious rooms of a sanctuary we build together. Some of its finest features are designed by the most difficult circumstances.

Barrett’s career as a pilot could take him almost anywhere, but I’ve told him that Ophelia stays. And I think he’s okay with that. She is part of our family and she is loved. Her life has become entwined with the lonely and vulnerable, and the joy of it fills us both every time we enter Chateau Gardens. It’s there when she looks up at me and nudges my hand with her nose as we walk down the hall, and in the way she expectantly enters a resident’s room.

One of the nurses said it well, “You don’t choose an animal; it chooses you.”

~Rachel Wallace-Oberle

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