A Different Kind of Volunteer

It was 14 years ago on March 17 that a marvelous litter of Australian Shepherds was born in our neighborhood. Six weeks later while walking my cantankerous Border Collie Chauncey, I saw the litter and immediately spotted one out of the dozen that seemed to be the center of attention. All the others wanted to play with her because she was such a happy little soul and such a great sport. I didn’t need another dog, but there was just something about her that was magical, so I asked if I could just take her home for one night. Chauncey was not pleased, but it was for just one night.

The next morning I called our neighbors and asked how much the puppies were. They said “$250, but they would sell her to me for $200.” At that time they might as well have said a thousand, but I decided that my rainy day fund could help me out this one time and paid the full $250. I wasn’t going to treat this pick of the litter with anything but top dollar.

While Chauncey was still not very happy about our new roommate, she adjusted because the puppy hero-worshiped her. I always thought that I trained the puppy, but looking back I realize now that it was Chauncey who taught the puppy how to raise a human.

Eventually after many name tries (Clancy, Mary Posa, etc.), we settled on Faux Marble because her coat looked like fake marble. Over the years, she grew from an adorable puppy to a rather beautiful Aussie. Yet, she retained her Miss Congeniality title with everyone and every dog that she met.

She excelled in her puppy obedience, so much so that she moved up in the ranks to advanced, super-duper obedience. There was talk of her competing in trials, but I decided that she wasn’t meant for that.

Then one day I read a notice in the paper that Baylor University Medical Center’s animal-assisted therapy program was testing candidates for its program. It sounded interesting and I thought it would be nice for Faux to have people pat her on the head. After all, what more does a therapy dog do, but visit people in the waiting room? So, we signed up for the test.

While the test for the program is different each time, the Baylor test under the direction of Linda Marler is right up there with facing the Supreme Court. As we waited in the outer room for our turn, we watched other canine/human partners leave the testing area looking like they had just weathered the Iditarod. What had I gotten us into?

As we were called into the room filled with veteran teams of the therapy program, I hesitated but Faux pulled the leash and headed into the room as if she knew exactly what to do. During the test, they did all types of things to rattle us. I was a bit shell shocked, but Faux never wavered. It was as if she had been studying for this opportunity all of her life. At the end of the test, Linda announced to the veteran therapy program teams that Faux had passed the test with flying colors. I think they let me in because Faux was so outstanding.

That day led to a journey taking us far beyond the waiting rooms. We would work in various areas of Baylor — the Baylor Institute of Rehabilitation, the psych unit, the transplant floor, and Our Children’s House. Faux would do tricks to entertain both patients and staff. She especially loved the staff who always greeted her with special pats and knew just the right spot to scratch.

But it wasn’t all tricks like shake, sit, and down. No, the dogs were expected to work with the patients and therapists. While at home the canines were just regular pooches, but once inside Baylor they became working staff demonstrating patience and showing no apprehension of the equipment, noises, and smells in the facility. They proudly wore their uniforms of blue bandannas, leashes, and collars. You got the impression that these dogs knew they had a talent and an awareness like the rescue dogs in Haiti or the service dogs that aid the blind. They were simply cut out for this type of work and thrived on it.

What amazed me about Faux and the other dogs in the program was how time and time again they would sense a patient who needed a certain type of attention. They tended to gravitate to the patient who had left a pet at home weeks ago and needed some “unconditional medicine” that wasn’t in medical books. Simply by putting her head on the knee of someone, or letting a child pull a little too long on her ear, she just knew how to handle those moments without a word being said.

I would kiddingly say that she was the volunteer and I was simply her escort.

But it wasn’t all work. There was the infamous annual Pink Pooch Parade at Baylor’s Plano facility in October. Each of the poor therapy dogs was humiliated by being dressed in various pink outfits and then paraded through the hospital as part of breast cancer awareness month. It was at this time that Faux thought I was akin to a stage mother of a baby beauty contestant.

One of the lessons that I learned from the program was the phrase, “crossing the rainbow bridge.” I had never heard of it. But every now and then I would get an email from Linda that one of the dogs in the program had died, or “crossed over the rainbow bridge.” It was a painful email that all the program teams dreaded. Not only for the loss of a marvelously giving animal, but also because we knew that one day it would hit our team.
This morning Baylor lost one of its volunteers. Faux crossed the rainbow bridge.

– February 24, 2010

(Faux lived a full and healthy life thanks to Dr. Jim Murray and the Abrams Royal Animal Clinic staff.)

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