"Penny," my first Lakeland, has always enjoyed a good show. As a 9-month-old, her exuberance made for an interesting obedience "career." Her youthful and somewhat inept handler may have appeared a little flustered at the heeling routines which offered a marked contrast to that of the robot-like Shelties; the reality is that I was just trying to keep up with the little red spitfire who "thought she could." Less-than-perfect recalls and a certain "bounce" characterized Penny's brief foray in obedience, but so did the thunderous applause (amazed terrier folk and my friends!) when the scores were announced... she was always within 5 points of a passing grade, but luckily she never failed. Terrier people, rank novices, and even the judge couldn't help but be at least amused by her, which was just fine for Penny...it was all about attention.
This carried over to a successful—if brief—show career. The "little diva" loved every minute of life as a champion, even the grooming. Never happier than when at the centre of the ring, she reciprocated with a showy charisma that made dog shows a lot of fun for someone who was just starting out in the breed. Show days behind her, she moved on to the whelping box. Again—she took great joy in being "front and centre," of having lots of admiring visitors, and in the inestimable pleasure of having underlings to boss around.
But, at about five years of age, her breeding career was complete. A multiple Best-in-Show-winning "grand finale" concluded her show career about two years earlier. Her Dad had neither the time nor the inclination to carry her to the next level of obedience—doubting he could ever really convince Penny to carry a dumb-bell or correctly sniff out the touched object. And, the puppies by now had all gone to live with other people. Besides, they were no longer naïve enough to appreciate her sometimes iron-pawed leadership.
I assumed that Penny would be content to rest on her laurels and enjoy a well- deserved retirement. Well, the old adage about assumptions came true in this case... she certainly didn't see anything exciting about retirement! For the first few months, everything was fine... Penny probably figured that something interesting was brewing. Sooner or later, however, she realized that she was "doomed" to be a couch potato, and that life as a couch potato wasn't exactly what she was ready for. She became depressed.
I had heard of "pet therapy" and was somewhat apprehensive about it. I imagined it as some kind of visitation whereby retirees brought their cute, well- behaved dogs to nursing homes, and tried to extract some sort of response from geriatric patients who were not quite in the prime of life. Like my previous assumption, this too proved to be wrong.
We sign up for pet therapy at the local hospital. The approval process isn't particularly rigorous—after all, Penny is a pretty well-behaved little girl, and doesn't object to the tests they put her through. How hard is it to sit on somebody's lap and be told how cute you are? Approval process was a "check" and, in a reasonably short time, she was assigned to the Thursday night "shift" at the local Rehab hospital of our regional care complex, the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre.
So, what does pet therapy actually involve? For the humans, it's a two-hour commitment, once weekly (only rarely did we stay only two hours!). We show up and do a walk-through on three wards, with most of the people being stroke or brain-injury patients. They have a tough day—we learned that some patients have as many as 14 hours of gruelling physical therapy and their only reprieve is the few hours before bed. So, often the folks aren't too interested in meeting with a dog.
For the patients who do enjoy the pet visitation, it brings a very real connection to the outside world. Most of these people owned (or own) dogs, and delight in being able to just see another dog again. It enriches their hospital experience. Since this is the largest regional care centre in Eastern Canada, many of the patients live far from the Rehab hospital, and thus they don't always have visitors. There is something inherently humanizing about a visit from a dog; in a world characterized by doctors, nurses, kinesiologists, and other health care providers, a four-legged dog with a wagging tail can make a huge difference. Many of the patients have been there for months, and this weekly visit is one of their few direct connections with the outside world.
Some of our more memorable experiences? The 22-year-old whom her doctors suspected of having "locked-in syndrome," whereby the patient has an intact mind yet is completely paralyzed and thus unable to communicate in any way with the outside world. The victim of a major car accident, this young woman first "tracked" (used her eyes to follow a moving object) when she saw Penny. Penny
was quickly incorporated into her physical therapy: four times a week she went to the Rehab for 3-hr "work" shifts. Along with the senior resident and her physical therapists, she ultimately gained mobility in her head, upper body, and left arm. Although Penny can't take all the credit for her progress, she provided a source of motivation. This young lady had grown up with and was very attached to her two dogs, which lived six hours away.
Another fond memory is of the annual QEII Christmas concert. Our job was to help shuttle patients over to the main building of the hospital complex from the Rehab Centre. Penny served as chief navigator, riding on the laps of patients while we wheel-chaired them over. During the concert, she brought much joy to the many patients, as she "worked the room," closely eyeing the trombones with apprehension and occasionally tilting her head in time with the music.
Penny has also endeared herself to the nursing staff, who greatly admire her badge (see photo), and her Nova Scotia tartan scarf. This was given to her by a grateful patient, who considered Penny's visits the highlight of his week. The scarf was soon accompanied by a crested pin, also compliments of one of her growing fan club. While the Nova Scotia tartan scarf became her trademark, Valentine's Day brought a bandanna with heart shapes, St. Patrick's Day one with four-leaf clovers, Christmas multiple themed bandannas... at this point Penny has a small wardrobe from which to choose at any time of the year!
There was the 18-year-old young man who will almost certainly remain paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life, victim of an ATV accident in rural Cape Breton. Calling Penny a "pretty cool dog" (if a bit small, given that he has a German Shepherd at home), he and Penny formed a close bond. Her other "special friends" included an elderly woman who confided a lot to her, and practically begged her doctor to allow Penny over-night visits (unfortunately, this request was declined).
The diversity in this particular hospital is really amazing. Young or old, demented or lucid, immobile or active, apathetic or passionate, exhausted or energetic, we see them all on the seventh floor of the Rehab site. What has it done for my dog? Penny knows that when her badge gets affixed to her scarf, it's "showtime" again. Perhaps recalling the glory of her "day in the sun," she returns to a level of high-spiritedness rarely seen at other times. Tail and ears up, she attracts much attention as she busily bustles through the corridors, to her mind more important than the chief of staff. She is gentle with the ones who need it, playful with those who appreciate it. She's played fetch in the hallway, nuzzled gently in an older patient's arms, and sometimes just drapes herself over someone's legs, watching TV. The job description for a "pet therapist" isn't clearly defined... mainly, it's just to put a smile on other people's faces.
I encourage anyone who thinks they might benefit from this kind of interaction to consider pet therapy with their dog. For my older dog, it served as a way to make her feel important again. With new puppies being born, new showdogs coming along, and all sorts of activity taking place (to which she is peripheral), this is the one time when she again takes centre stage. This is not the only reason to join pet therapy; any reasonably well-behaved dog can take part and derive great satisfaction from the experience. Most importantly, it provides a wonderful opportunity to give patients an added dimension to their health care, and is extremely rewarding to everyone involved.