Barb's Archive

A powerful day for the Soul Dog

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

Izzy the lap dog with Barb
Izzy the lap dog with Barb

April 16, 2008 – Today was a powerful day for the Soul Dog.
I’m taking most of April to learn Hospice work, to learn more about the dying process, and train Izzy and Lenore fully, and today, for various scheduling and geographic reasons, we were on the road for hours, from the Adirondacks to Granville to a nursing home near Ft. Edward, making five different Hospice visits. It was a long day, a tiring one, and a test even of Izzy’s skills, and it was a great day, and a real opportunity to see a skilled and generous working dog do a lot of great work for human beings in need in very different circumstances.
Hospice nurses and health aides also got to work with Izzy today and that was helpful as well as instructive. Every time I see these people, I learn more about this work, and how challenging it is.
Everything about Hospice work is unpredictable and different – the people, places, circumstances, emotions. We climbed several flights of stairs in a big old house in the Adirondacks to see Caleb,  almost totally paralyzed by several strokes, and able to only move one hand. Since he couldn’t move, we had to get to him, and he smiled from ear to ear when Izzy came in, and the dog climbed up onto the wheelchair and lay still for nearly an hour while he was petted and held. The room was crowded with medical equipment, warm and cramped. And the patient was unable to communicate in ways dogs expect.
It was one of the most powerful visits we have yet made in Hospice, seeing the emotional transformation in Caleb before and after Izzy’s visits. Caleb is well cared for, yet struggling with his illness, and alone with health care aides most of the time. He was overjoyed to see and hold Izzy, and it lifted him up, and eased his struggle. We sat and talked for an hour, and I told him about the Yankees, who he loves, and about Izzy another dogs.
I left Lenore at home today because I want to continue working with the dogs alone, to train and observe them. And she has a sore leg, garnered plowing into a post after a ball.
We went to another town to see Barb, above, and she has been asking for Izzy for several days, and while Izzy sat in her lap, we worked on a poem together, which I will post tomorrow. “I was worried about him,” she said. “I was afraid something had happened to him.”
Barb is soft-spoken and exhausted, and I love the way she stares at Izzy and says, “good dog, good dog,” softly and with so much love. It is an opportunity for her to be nurturing and to open up emotionally.  Izzy responds in kind.
We then stopped off at Warren and Helen’s to bring some pansies, and Izzy spent some time with Warren. Talk of another poem there.
We went to a nursing home to see two patients, both with Alzheimer’s. Izzy, now tired, was patient, working from the floor by putting his head in the lap’s of both patients, one of whom lashed out at him in confusion. She was in a noisy and crowded hallway, with some extreme dementia patients, and it was confusing for him, a real test of his patience and calm.
I brought him back to the patient who lashed at him, a few minutes later, and both Izzy and she were calm.
Izzy’s day began at 9 a.m., and ended at 9 p.m.
I am somewhat in awe of this dog, and the skills he brings to this work, his gentleness, boundless affection, his confidence and judgment, and his ability to focus on people, as well as his agility at getting himself into tough spots and staying there for long periods. He is almost always watching me for cues, and we communicate on a different level after nearly a year of this work. He enjoys this work, but I feel now that he does this work for me, as dogs often do for humans. As our visits progress, he attaches to patients, and I think, does some of the work for them.
I would not normally work him (or me) this hard, but I had fallen behind a bit on some of these patients, and that is not an acceptable breach, especially when you realize how much it means to them to see Izzy and or Lenore.
Hospice work has to be managed, for me and the dogs, and I am closely monitored by  the Hospice nurses and staff, as are all volunteers,  but I have cleared time for this work, this month and beyond, and want to know more about it, and about how the dogs work in it.
It was a tough day, and a challenging day. It was nothing but a good day, and I am grateful for the blessing of Izzy, who not only has enriched my life, but continues to bring light and comfort to the lives of  people who very much need it.
Izzy is, in fact, a Soul Dog, by which I mean he has the ability to connect with human spirits – human souls – in tangible and meaningful ways. I do not claim to understand what is going on in his mind, but am determined that his gift, and Lenore’s growing skills,  be used whenever possible.
I don’t know if dogs have souls or not, but if they do, Izzy will get to a place with acres of sheep and bones.
He has been asleep since we got home, and I will follow shortly, once I check on the farm and the animals (a goat was running around the backyard when I got home).
Good job, Iz.

Love and life in the realm of the dying

Saturday, April 5th, 2008

The language between Izzy and Barb is mystical, beyond voice and my limited understanding. The two share a bond, a kind of love, and a joy that I simply do not know how to express, but am privileged to witness. They each, in their own way, know things the rest of us cannot know, and they share these things with one another.

April 5, 2008 – Hospice work is different every time. It is sometimes disturbing and frustrating. The outcome – death – is almost inevitable. The words of a Hospice social worker
still echo from training: “In our country, we mistreat the dying. We shun them, hide them, leave them and their families alone to struggle with one of life’s most powerful and intimate moments.”
This, in my almost-year of Hospice work, is true. The dying are mistreated. They are shunned, avoided. Few people want to know anything about death or dying. Most people I meet do not know what Hospice is. Some people ask me if it’s a cancer treatment center, a home for people to die in, a place to get medicines when gravely ill.
Hospice is a series of organizations staffed by administrators, nurses, home aides, social workers, and volunteers who help people who are at the end of their lives die comfortably, and with dignity. They are amazing people. Hospice doesn’t really allow for laziness, callousness or indifference. It seems to pull the best out of the people involved in it. It is about an acceptance of the dying process, and about giving the dying choice about how they wish to leave the world.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when Izzy and I signed up, but it wasn’t what we found.
In the realm of the dying, Izzy, Lenore and I have found death, for sure, and pain and loss. But if I were to describe the most powerful things we have encountered, it would be love, life and connection. There is more love and life in the realm of the dying than I have experienced in most of the rest of my life, or most of my time among the vigorous and healthy people running around in circles through most of our world.
In Hospice, we met Helen and Warren, and witnessed their great love and commitment to one another. We met Glen the logger come to terms with his death through Izzy up in the Adirondacks. We met a stricken mother watching her young son die. We met a woman who devoted years of her life to caring for her mother, and making sure she died in comfort and in her own bed.
We have read stories and poems, novels and mysteries. Lately, we have been writing living poems – two for Helen, and one underway for Barb.
Sitting up in the Adirondacks this morning with Barb, Izzy and Lenore, Barb and I were chatting quietly in the kitchen about her life, happy things and sad, when she suddenly told me this wonderful story about the time she was seven and a bird landed on her hand.
“I didn’t even have food,” she said, shaking her head in mystery of how such a miracle could occur.
She told the story as if it happened yesterday, and was as full of wonder and joy as if it were happening now. Watching she and Izzy connect to one another, I thought of how Hospice was, in strange ways, a celebration of living, an affirmation not of death but of life, and the pieces, people and stories that make up the individual tapestries of life. Also of the powerful bonds and stories of friendship and family that abound in the land of the dying, and help people through this extraordinary passage at their time of greatest need.
In this realm, there is the greatest sincerity. Time matters, memories are powerful and important, the meaning of one’s life is constantly affirmed and never, ever, taken for granted.
I love stories. They are my life, in many ways, and I see the Hospice work I am doing with  Izzy and Lenore as the greatest gift: hearing the sparkling little stories that, no matter how small, add up to nothing less than life. There is nothing depressing about that.
Barb is ill, and like the rest of us, will fall. I have no illusions about that, but what a pleasure to know her and to hear her gentle and loving tales of her life with Bill, her adventurous mother, her eight children.
I am enriched and nourished by the gift of the stories that make up her life, and in awe of the power of my dogs to brighten her time. I look forward to our visits. There is no reason to shun the dying, or to mistreat them. They have as much to offer us, perhaps much more, as we could ever give to them.
Barb’s poem will be posted later in the week.

I am taking the month of April to do Hospice work full-time, both for my own personal reasons, and to hone the dog’s training skills. I will be posting regular Hospice Journals, as well as the reports from the farm, and the odd and diverse photo from here and there.

Lenore is a warrior for love

Saturday, April 5th, 2008

Barb and Izzy, in the Adirondacks

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

March 29, 2008 – Izzy and Lenore and I headed up to the Adirondacks to visit Barb, our third visit to her. The Adirondacks are compelling for me, long drives through beautiful, mostly impoverished and struggling towns, filled with abandoned homes and businesses, the air of a lost world.  There are successful businesses and nice houses, and much beautiful scenery, but the overall sense of of a Brigadoon on hard times.
Barb is very attached to Izzy, and watching him today – he grows into this work continuously – I was reminded of how critical agility is to a Hospice dog. In some therapy work, the patients can get to the dogs, but not usually in this work.
The spaces we work in are almost never easy. The patients are often gravely ill, sometimes in pain, quite sensitive to movement and touch, and they are usually in Hospital beds, wheelchairs or recliners. It is physically difficult to reach many of them, and they can’t usually come to us or, often, even bend over. So we have to figure out ways to get the dogs into very confined spaces, filled with medical equipment and tubes and medicines, without damaging anything or harming or disturbing the patients. This aspect is always difficult. If you can’t get the dog to the patient, you can’t do much bonding or comforting, and then there is the problem of the dog.
Few dogs, including Lenore on some occasions, can get themselves into confined spaces and stay there for long periods. Izzy has mastered this.
I point to the spot I want him to go, and say “Izzy, up” and he delicately hops up, and lays still, while he is petted or stroked. He has squeezed into some tiny spaces – above, he is perching delicately on the edge of a medical recliner, almost hanging off, yet he lay still there for 15 minutes, a paw balanced on Barb’s handbag.  Often, you can’t move equipment, or patients. Barb was too weak to move today.
Lenore hopped up and stayed for four or five minutes, but just couldn’t fit herself in comfortably. Izzy is remarkable in this work, and I can’t emphasize enough that there was little site-specific training involved, beyond calming and obedience, and continuous reinforcing of the physical contact with patients. I have not had another dog with that particular combination of agility and intuition, although Lenore shows a lot of promise.  Still, she is much stockier and just can’t squeeze into the spaces he can, and is more prone to the distractions – smells, machines, tubes.
Izzy and Barb have bonded strongly, and she likes to have stories read to her, but mostly, she loves to sit and stroke Izzy’s back and head and talk to him. She tells him stories of her life, her late husband and her dogs, and it is a pleasure to listen as these two connect. “Good dog, good, good dog,” she whispers to him. He likes it.
Below, Barb admires a quilt made for her by a friend (she wishes to remain anonymous.) Barb also has a photo of Rose, which she is hanging in her bedroom. Rose couldn’t handle Hospice work for a second, but people seem to love photos of her, and sense her working ethos.
I enjoy her soft and gentle way, and hearing the stories of her life. She was weak and tired today.

Barb and the quilt a Washington County quilter made for her.

Barb and the quilt a Washington County quilter made for her.

Izzy and Lenore, Barb and Caleb

Monday, March 24th, 2008

March 24, 2008 -  We started the day in Granville, spend several hours in the Adirondacks seeing Hospice patients. Long days for the dogs.
Izzy and Lenore continue to develop very different styles in Hospice work. Izzy approaches the patient head on, eyes-on-eyes, Lenore loves physical contact, sits still in  laps, lies down on people’s feet. Both elicit different responses. Izzy soothes, Lenore draws smiles.
Izzy’s demeanor suggests he wants to get to know you, and Lenore wants affection. The combination is effective. The dogs cheer up the families as well as the patients, and I notice they do become tired if they work too often, or stay too long. Monday was a long day for them, in the car for hours, into homes, schools, nursing homes, office buildings.
They are calm and quiet in the car, and seem to have boundless energy and affection.
Barb is a dog lover, who beams when the dogs come into the room. Izzy shook hands, above, and then Lenore lay down near Barb and Izzy went into a corner and watched.
I enjoy many things about Hospice work, one being the stories people tell me about their lives. Barb was a nurse for some years, and her husband was a fireman and she talked quietly and evocatively about “My Bill” and their life together. I think this may also become a poem. She is an avid animal lover, so I brought her the National Geographic story on animal intelligence, which we discussed on this blog. Also a picture of Rose. It’s a funny thing about pictures of Rose, but women, especially women that have worked, love seeing her, and pick up her ferocious work ethic in those eyes.
Rose knit and quilted before it became tough for her fingers. She said she would love to hear some poems and stories, and I have plenty of those. She has a dry sense of humor, and misses little. Times with her are quiet, soothing. She likes having both dogs around.
I want to work the dogs continuously, so they both become polished. Izzy is, Lenore is getting there. Barb clearly enjoys both dogs, so I will bring both to see her.
Both dogs also work for Caleb, below, a difficult challenge for Izzy and Lenore, as he is confined to a wheelchair and can only move one hand. Izzy stays near the hand, so Caleb can stroke his head, and Lenore lies still in his lab. He smiles when he sees the dogs, and nods vigorously when asked if they want to come back.
Lenore forages carefully around every inch of a room before she settles in to work. She is almost unfailingly appropriate now, approaching people gently, and doesn’t mouth anymore, as young Labs tend to do. I definitely see growing intuition in Lenore. She is clearly learning to be calm and focus around the Hospice patients.

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

Wednesday, March 19th, 2008

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.