Pet stories are everywhere in New England.
There was Carmen, a long-haired dachshund who was over-bred by a puppy mill, rescued, sent to prison for training and mutual therapy, adopted by an elderly woman who then retired from Maine to Minnesota. Carmen was now on vacation in Maine, rolling on her back in the grass with abandon. The footage was too dark and too blurry.
There was the family who drive with six Pomeranian show dogs in their camper, all in the cab, with the driver and passengers. I met them at a clam bake in Franklin County, Maine. The dogs didn't bark, didn't bite, obeyed perfectly. They all popped out of a window in rows of three, standing on each other like cheerleaders. But, after all their flair and playful conversation, the owners freaked out when asked to take their picture and/or write a Patch piece.
No bother. More stories by the hour. The albino German Shepherd. Pet spiders. Rescue stories. Dogs who do acrobatic tricks.
Unexpectedly, though, in the middle of Scrabble with my Mom, my girlfriend became upset after checking her phone. Her father, she read, had been taken by ambulance to hospice. Kidneys again. He had dehydrated.
We all exited the retirement home's game room to my Mom's little apartment, next to the Nursing Station.
"Oh, look!" My girlfriend first showed my daughters the photo on her iPhone, then she showed my Mom, then me: Her Dad is lying on a hospice bed, petting a therapy dog.
"He looks relieved!"
And so did she, seeing her father loving a dog. The image pushed away some of her dark imaginings.
My mom chimed in: "You know, Don, your father had help like that. A dog was brought in to help your Dad, too."
I did not know that. He had been distant with my pets, though always kind. He was caught, once or twice, talking to them in full conversation as he made 6 a.m. oatmeal. But I didn't know dogs were important to him in those last years of his descent into Alzheimer's disease.
"Your father was very sick, very depressed by the end."
When my father was a young man, he had a little black dog. His family went on a trip, camping by a stream. In the morning, the little black dog couldn't be found. They stayed an extra two nights, hoping to locate Dad's little black dog. But they never found him.
Dad had mentioned the little black dog to my Mom many times over the years.
Finally, Dad sank into full-blown Altzheimer's. He had lost his ability to work, he had lost most of his friends, he had lost much of his functioning, and he had lost most language—grasping mostly for prepositions.
He tried to do the job of communicating everything with: "To the, to, to, to, to the..." He would add a pointing finger to the bookcase, and you would have to guess what he wanted. To discuss Montaigne's essays? Benjamin Franklin's letters from Paris? Thoreau's Journals, maybe? But you could only guess.
He had been moved from an open living situation, with my Mom, to a locked unit in the Altzheimer's Ward (after escaping from the retirement community on a record cold winter day).
The Altzheimer's Unit had a ton of heart. They brought my Dad a therapy pet. According to my Mom, it was a little, black dog.
"But this little, black dog was made of cloth."
"You mean a stuffed dog?"
"Yes, and he held it tightly."
She is sure it triggered a deep sense memory of getting back the thing he had lost so long ago. She says he held the dog for days.
"He was unhappy with the therapists, and he was not totally trustworthy for pet ownership. It gave him a little, black dog. And, for your father, it was...so comforting!"
My girlfriend's mother called to tell us that her father, Ed, was feeling well enough to sleep. The dog helped him to calm down.
"The dog is wonderful," says her mom. Hospice worker, Lacey, brought him in. He cuddles with Ed and quickly helps him to relax.
If you have a loved one who doesn't always reach out easily to us humans, check into adding pet therapy to their plan. There are contacts available through every vet in Studio City.