Mar 19th 2008

Into the Wild – What my dogs teach each other (and me)

Posted in Barb, Caleb, Izzy, Lenore

March 18, 2008 – Monday, Izzy and Lenore had their longest, and in some ways, most difficult time as Hospice dogs. We saw Barb, above, in her home, and also Caleb, who has suffered from multiple strokes and who lives in the mountains also. These were alien environments for the dogs, filled with small spaces, medical equipment, and people who behaved differently, in some ways, than the dogs are used to seeing. Strange dogs were running loose everywhere. The rooms were warm, crowded, filled with different odors, humming machines.
Izzy showed his remarkable intuition and physical grace, honing in on the patients, stepping over and around tubes, cables, beds, other equipment.
Lenore is growing in confidence and calm by the visit, as shown below.  Izzy and Lenore are becoming inseparable, this work clearly drawing them closer to one another, as well as to the people they see.

And I saw this happen, which I wanted to recount:

We saw Caleb, sitting in a wheelchair, and Barb, who was sitting up in a kitchen chair.
When we saw Caleb, who can only move one hand, Izzy and Lenore were both uncertain. Izzy put his head in Caleb’s hand and left it there.
I saw changes in both dogs. Lenore, clearly, is learning from Izzy, something behaviorists had alerted me to watch for, but I was not seeing myself. Monday, I was watching for it. And I saw it.
Lenore tends to forage when she enters a room, something Labs do. Izzy goes right to work. After Izzy had spent a few minutes with Caleb, Lenore came over to see what was doing on, her tail wagging. Izzy pulled his nose out of Caleb’s hand, and then touched noses with Lenore. I would have thought this was a gesture of curiousity or affection, but alerted by the behaviorists, I realized Izzy was teaching her. He got her attention, then put his nose back under Caleb’s outstretched hand, then withdrew it.
After they touched noses, Lenore put her head in Caleb’s hand, and then licked it. She doesn’t show affection the way Izzy does – he stares into people’s eyes. Lenore licks, cuddles and snuggles.
Izzy seemed to have guided her to Caleb’s hand. And she kept returning to it, grasping the idea that we are in these places to see people, and she lets Izzy guide her, it seems to me, as to how.
Later, at Barb’s, Izzy put his head in her hand, and then Lenore did the same, and then she lay at Barb’s feet while Barb leaned over to pet her, something Izzy did twice that day, just before Lenore did. As the day wore on, Lenore did it more and more. Barb was sitting upright and I didn’t want her to have to lean over, so Izzy did his patented nose in the head approach, and Lenore nosed Barb’s hand and lay at her feet.
I now have no doubt that Izzy grasps the nature of the work we are doing, zoning in on the patients and responding to their attention and need. If they are tired, in pain, or not interested, he simply moves away. Lenore is still less certain initially, but becoming more confident with each visit, and is remarkably calm and focused.
In a remarkable scene, shown below, one of the most powerful yet in our Hospice visits, I was trying to figure out how to give Caleb a chance to feel the dog against him, and it was awkward, the room filled with furniture, and he lying back in a wheelchair, not able to move. Each visit is different, and presents its own challenges, and requires a distinct and different approach, one that is sensitive and responsive to the person we are visiting. These are powerful and intimate moments, and they deserve thoughtfulness and care.  Each visit is completely different from the other, as the circumstances of each patient – home, illness, state of mind, health – is so different. You have to clear your head each time, and approach the task with a fresh approach. Everyone wants and need something different. I felt Caleb needed affection, Barb was looking more for a personal connection. I was not sure at first how to help Caleb.
So I reluctantly – I was concerned about an anxious Lab puppy squirming, clawing or jumping – had an idea and lifted Lenore up and lay her on Caleb’s lab.
She sensed instantly what I was doing, lay down and still for almost 10 minutes, while Caleb stroked her back and smiled. I would not have imagined before that visit that I could put Lenore, a seven-month old puppy, down in that space, and have her lay so still for so long. She certainly won’t do that at home. My sense was that Caleb responded particularly to the more sensory affection of Lenore, and Barb to Izzy, to whom she kept whispering, “Good, goodl dog.”
The nurse in the room said Caleb didn’t want to get out of bed that morning, until told that Izzy and Lenore were coming, and then he eagerly nodded that he wanted to get up. I’ve decided not to show Caleb’s face in these photos, but I am sorry all of the people reading this could not see his quite enormous smile.
Dogs do teach one another, as I have been told, and have now seen clearly with my own eyes. And sometimes we have to get out of the way and let them do it.
This is one of the many reasons Hospice work is neither depressing nor discouraging, but quite uplifting. We will be back in the Adirondacks as soon as we can, and we will find at least two people eagerly awaiting us.