Monday, May 29, 2017

Memorial Day

For the Veterans at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center Memorial Day is not a holiday for sales or a trip to the shore. It is a time to reflect on past service and lost friends. It is a time for family members to visit and listen to stories from “the good old days!”
Wondering the halls of the VA I encounter many family members as they visit their loved ones. Many are regulars so they are used to seeing a therapy dog on the hospital grounds. But for the newly admitted patients and their family members it is definitely a head turner to see a dog in their vicinity. If they are an animal lover, a big smile will appear on their face.
This past week I learned of a passing of one of our regulars Maggie and I had visited for quite a number of years. Although somewhat of a shock we had not seen him in some time as he had fulfilled his wish and was discharged and spent his remaining time in the comfort of his home.
I view the VA hospital as a small city. Each room can be seen as an apartment or a condo so everyone has the opportunity to get to know one another. I’m sure when the residents see one of their neighbors being discharged they are happy for them. But when the news of their untimely death reaches them, this must be a blow. The next question that enters their minds must be when is it my turn?
My hope is that by bringing Maggie in for a visit I am able to distract them and even give them a little happiness now and again.

To all the Veterans- Thank you for your service!

Monday, May 15, 2017

It's All in the Eyes

As we walked into the Physical Therapy room at the VA hospital there were some of the regulars that we visit on a Tuesday afternoon. Maggie and I made our rounds spending a few minutes with each person. I kept feeling a funny sensation as I made my way through the room and as I finished I noticed a gentleman sitting by himself. I approached him and asked if he wanted to pet Maggie. He didn’t respond, just stared at me. I figured he didn’t hear me so I repeated myself. Again he didn’t respond just continued to stare. I assumed he didn’t want to pet Maggie so I told him to have a good day and steered Maggie away.
I was bothered by this encounter the rest of the visit. Why was he staring at me? Did he want to answer me but was unable to? (I have learned to never ask about people’s ailments as this is not my business) But in the back of my mind I felt he was trying to tell me something.
Maggie and I finished our visit and left.
The next time we went to the VA hospital I ran into this same individual. This time there was a birthday celebration for one of the residents. In a room full of people eating vanilla ice cream there were a lot of happy faces. I spotted him once again staring at me and Maggie, so we made our way over to him. I smiled and asked if he likes dogs. He took his time answering and when he finally did he said “no”. Caught off guard I said “Oh, I’m sorry I’ll take Maggie away, but before I could move he said “I LOVE dogs!” Again I was caught off guard, but this time in a good way. He sat with a straight face, but his eyes changed. I noticed a shine to them. I asked if he wanted to pet Maggie. There was a slight nod of his head. I gently lifted his hand and placed it on Maggie’s back. Again his eyes changed. Maggie understood to stand close to him. I asked if he was enjoying the party and the ice cream. He slowly told me chocolate was his favorite flavor ice cream but vanilla would do. I could tell we would become friends.

After finishing talking with everyone in the room I waved goodbye but made sure to lock eyes with this gentleman as I was leaving and say “See you soon.”

Monday, May 8, 2017

Two Different Worlds

Over the five years that Maggie and I have been providing therapy to others we have traveled to many hospitals, nursing homes, libraries and schools located in varying neighborhoods in the Philadelphia area.
While some of the neighborhoods are of the affluent persuasion others are at the opposite extreme. I never feel uncomfortable but I do notice a difference in the student body.
So why am I mentioning this? While at a school visit this past week I was sitting with some dynamic students. One of them was afraid of dogs but was beginning to show some interest in Maggie. At one point Maggie got up to stretch and then picked something up off the floor. I immediately said “No” and told her to “Drop it”. The student asked if I was going to hit Maggie. I looked at her and said of course not-we never hit dogs, just like we never hit children. She gave me a look like I lost my mind and replied “I get hit all the time!” It was then I realized we were from two different worlds.
I didn’t really know how to reply or if it warranted a response but I simply said “I’m sorry”
I realized the purpose of my visit that day was to bring Maggie into an environment where students might not have been exposed to a therapy dog. I am not and do not want to get into their business and solve their problems (or world problems) that precise moment. I do realize everyone comes to the table with their own unique set of problems that I am not equipped to handle-so I just focus on what I am trained to do (although my heart did go out to her).

At the end of the visit I complimented her on being able to pet Maggie and she did respond with a half a smile.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017


Every person has their own way of communicating with their pet. It could be in a verbal or non-verbal way. These are learned skills we teach our pets throughout their lives.
Our pets are like our children. They do better with a set of rules to follow. With a set of rules or boundaries a pet knows what is allowed or expected of them.
As a therapy dog Maggie has another layer of rules she has to follow on a visit. For instance no jumping or scratching people, and no barking are just a few of the rules. Throughout our visit Maggie will look to me for cues. I will reward her with a treat if she is behaving properly or I will ask the person she is visiting if they would like to give her a treat. If I am talking with an individual Maggie will sit patiently waiting for me to give her instructions.
I am often asked if Maggie is smart. Since she is part poodle (poodle is one of the smartest breeds). I reply that she is indeed smart- she listens when she wants! The truth is when we are on a therapy visit Maggie has learned she is there for a purpose (to give comfort and/or relieve stress to the person she is visiting) and she follows directions very well. But Maggie does have her own mind and at home there are times she doesn’t want to listen. This is why I tell people she listens when she wants!
One of Maggie’s favorite way of communicating with me is what I call her “stare down”. She will come over to me and stare at me until I recognize what she is asking for and I respond.
This generally happens a few times a day. In the morning when she is ready for her walk. In the afternoon when she is hungry and in the evening when she is ready for her evening walk. As she is not the type of dog that barks a lot, her way of communicating works for us. She does have an internal clock that alerts her to her needs and I have a watch (or clock on the wall) that lets me know the actual time.
Some people would get annoyed with a dog staring at them but I actually love it! It makes me feel connected to Maggie. She knows she can come to me when she needs me and I will be able to help her.

It is important to get to know your pet and work on a way of communicating that works for your family. It gives your pet a feeling of love and security.