SENIOR DOG FOR SENIORS
At fourteen, Doc was still a spry old man. He bounded out of the doggie room every morning, excited about breakfast and family and walks and adventures. I should explain the doggie room. The house we rent has a sliding glass door with a three season room. It is heated and air-conditioned. Izzy and Doc have their own couch, piled with blankets and orthopedic dog beds and a full view on all sides of the backyard- which is full of critters. They have a pee pad and a water source. It gets lots of sunlight for warm afternoon naps. It is their place to sleep at night.
We had a standard doggie tuck-in ritual. Sometimes when he was tired, Doc would just head in by himself and pick out his favorite spot. He liked the vantage point with the most sight lines. He could still see us, but he could also “watch our six” and warn us of trespassing squirrels.
I read about a program called Paw Pals offered through VITAS hospice services in which dogs would visit hospice patients. I contacted them and went through the training. Doc’s interview went extremely well – he was his charming, giving and very vocal self. The program administrator explained that older dogs are very well suited to this program because they are calmer. We were assigned a patient at a nursing facility. And so we went.
You are supposed to chart your time for patient visits, but it would take us a good 15-20 minutes just to get through the lobby and day room. Everyone wanted to greet Doc with pets and kisses and “hello little dog!” And he loved the attention. His service to others gained him an adoring group of instant friends. Despite what anyone was battling that day, for a few minutes he made them feel loved. Unconditionally.
It changed me. It taught me. I had been there when my grandfather, grandmother and mother all passed. I know factually that these bodies we are given do not last. Mine will not last. The people we saw on our visits know that as an everyday reality. Some had lost their sense of reality or control of basic bodily functions. Some did not care what day it was or what game show was on in the day room. And some day that could be me. Or someone I loved. But this day, it was not. This day, because of a little dog, I became fully aware that I was in a state of grace. That I was capable and strong and present. And to bring a respite of joy to people who were not, all I had to do was be the handler for a small dog named Doc.
He made people shine.
The patient we were assigned “Jake” – name change due to HIPAA laws – would talk about his three German Shepherds. Doc would sit on his lap or tray table and give him kisses or lean against him. When I wheeled him places, Doc would perch on his lap attentively. I had a photo made and framed of them two of them together. I gave it to Jake for his bedside table. He called him “Little Ole Fella”.
One day, I received a call from VITAS. They left a message not to visit Jake anymore. I called back immediately with the worst feeling in the pit of my stomach. Then the lady explained that Jake had been taken off the hospice care list. He was getting better to the point that he did not need services.
Small, crazy miracle. There was a whole team of people caring for him. And one small dog.
A GOOD LIFE/A GOOD DEATH
After Jake, DOC retired from Paw Pals. He was slowing down a bit. I went to put his harness on one day his back legs seized up. It passed after a few seconds, but we still visited the vet for his checkup. Aside from a small heart murmur, Doc was fine. He was just wearing out like we all do.
The next day and weeks to follow, he still walked everyday with Daz. He still played and chased tennis balls. He still participated in “Get-an-Izzy”. “Get-an-Izzy” is where I would slap the floor and say “Get-An-Izzy!” and he and Izzy would chase each other and blow off steam. He would chase her and she would whirl around and then chase him and then they would both flop and pant and roll over for belly rubs. He was still on his mission to remove all the legs from his stuffed octopus. It was down to three.
I got a call right before Christmas that my job had been cut – along with about 75 other people from my section. Bad timing for the holidays. As much as it could have wrecked me, it allowed me to be there for Doc.
I was given the gift of three months with my little old man. I would not trade it. I was able to do so much for him.
I had found another job that was to start the following Monday. On that Thursday morning prior, around ten, Doc had a seizure. It lasted several minutes and I sat with him through it. I got him to drink some water and gave him half a canine aspirin and a little shredded chicken. He slept.
He threw up. I cleaned him up and he slept some more. I did not leave his side that day except to pick up Daz from work. He did not want food or water. His back legs were not able to hold his weight. He seized again that evening. I was holding him most of that day. My crying jag was sudden and crushing, but brief. I could not be selfish.
Around seven that night, he let me know that he wanted to be down on the floor with Daz. I went to help him down, but he jumped and landed on his own. He lay down next to Daz and put a paw on his leg. He had a brief final seizure and let go of his body here on Earth.
It was too small anyway for the immense spirit it housed.
We handled him with care and respect. He was buried wrapped in his red blanket with his favorite toy, the Nassy Eep (Nasty Sheep) at the foot of the blackberry bush just coming into its green buds.
A year on, I still wonder how I was so blessed to know a dog so long. He was not MY dog. He was my friend who was friends with the world. It was an honor to be his caregiver. It was gift to be his family.
And I am grateful for the small, indelible paw print on my heart.
Thank you, Doc.