Since fourth grade, I knew I wanted to be a nurse, and I knew it would be working with children. I never once waivered from that goal. In 1985 I started working as an RN in the pediatric unit of a hospital. I loved my job. I loved working not only with the kids, but the families as a whole. As a child, I had only been hospitalized once, and it was a frightening experience. My focus was always, not just on the physical care of the children, but on their emotional care as well. I wanted, as much as possible, for them to have a positive experience, and try to make what I had to do to them less frightening. I loved being able to teach the families about their child’s disease process, our treatment goals for their child, and involve them in their care as much as possible. There were days I would come home heartbroken, for those that we couldn’t fix. For those whose parent s were the reason the child was in my care. For those who I didn’t seem to be able to make a connection with. But these days were always tempered with those who went home better, healthier and stronger. Those who I felt a heart connection to, and will never forget. In spite of the bad days, I kept going, trying to make a difference in just one child the next day.
In 2003, while working at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital, I met my first Therapy Dog. A golden retriever named Daisy. Having a senior golden retriever myself, I was immediately drawn to her. I watched as the kids interacted with her and saw their faces brighten. Then it was my turn to pet her. She was the highlight of my day. While petting her & talking to her handler, I felt such a calm inside. As if none of my work responsibilities existed for the moment. The rest of my shift I felt lightening of my spirit. I looked forward to Daisy’s visits every 2 weeks. Shortly after my dog died, a St. Bernard, Sasha, came to visit as I was settling a child into their bed after surgery. Sasha’s handler asked the family if they wanted a visit, but the child was too sleepy and declined. I didn’t hesitate. “Can I have a visit?” It was just what my heart needed. I cried a little, but I felt happy at the same time. It was then that I knew I would pursue this path as well.
Three months later, along came eight week old Harli, and our journey began. I took her to puppy class, beginning obedience class, advanced obedience class…. Every class I could find, I took her. I had no idea how to “create” a Therapy Dog, so I researched and read and asked people a lot of questions. I was fortunate enough to find a woman in Woodinville, Christy Dudzik, who was an instructor and evaluator for Pet Partners. We drove to class from Puyallup to Woodinville (one and a half hours each way, through commute traffic) every week for 7 weeks. I soaked up her knowledge and experience. Harli & I passed our Pet Partners Evaluation in 2004, when she was 2 years old. About the same time, I found Family Dog Training Center in Kent, WA. We continued our journey. We took more advanced classes, Competition Obedience and Rally Obedience classes. I loved their philosophy of training, and again, tried to soak up everything I could for Harli & I to be successful at our therapy work. For me, it wasn’t about competing. Although, just to brag a bit… Harli & I did go on to compete in Rally Obedience, with the encouragement & support of one of our Family Dog instructors. On our first show, we earned first place! So of course we were hooked! Eventually we went on to get her Rally Advanced title. But continuing classes was a way for Harli & I to continue to build our relationship so our therapy work would benefit.
We started visiting at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital (although I no longer worked there) in 2005. Doing this work with my dogs (I now have a second Therapy Dog, Piper who is 5 years old), allows me to continue to work with kids and their families with the same purpose I had as an RN. To bring just a bit of joy to their day. To help break the boredom. To let them forget, for maybe just a few minutes, that they are in pain, or worried, or scared, or even are in the hospital. I still get to teach them. But now, I teach them about my dog, about how I taught my dog to do this work. Just as working there as an RN, there are days I come away a little sad for the few that I couldn’t bring a smile to – their pain was just too great. For those that I see week after week, still confined to the hospital. For those whose names I’ve seen in the media, and now see for myself the wounds and scars they will have that may last a life time. Physical scars; emotional scars; mental scars. The staff are equally excited to see Harli. I don’t know what their day has held for them, but they assure me her visits help them as much as the kids. There are days that I don’t “feel” like making our visits that day because I’m tired or it’s been a busy week. But I’ve made the commitment, so I go. And not once have I come away feeling I’ve wasted my time. No matter what our interactions that day, my heart is always lighter. My dog has made someone’s day, has lifted their spirits, has given them a needed smile. I have heard parents say, “that’s the first time she’s said anything in the three days we’ve been here.” Unlike me, who remembers my hospital visit as a child as a scary thing, my hope is that these children remember the dog who made them smile, who did silly tricks, who cuddled on their bed.
One visit I will never forget was a 5 year old girl who had been attacked by a dog. We were initially told not to visit her because of the situation, per the mother’s request. She was concerned her daughter would be too afraid of the dog. As we went on our rounds, the mom had seen Harli interacting with some of the kids and their families, and decided she’d like us to visit after all. After checking with our volunteer supervisor, we were given the okay. I told mom we would just take it one step at a time and see how it went. But if in any way mom thought her daughter was concerned, we would end our visit. And so, we did just that… one step at a time. Initially I just stood in the doorway, Harli sitting quietly beside me, while I just chatted with the girl & her mom. Then, with a nod of mom’s head, we took a step forward. Just continuing to chat about 5-year-old stuff. With mom giving me a nod of the head, or a smile, and also asking the child’s permission, we continued, literally one step at a time. In all, it took us 15 minutes to eventually be beside the child’s bed. By the end of our visit, this sweet little girl, covered on her face and arms with bruises and stitches, was nose to nose with Harli, giving her kisses and cuddling her head. The psychologist that was working with her had given her a stuffed dog. During our “approach”, I had asked if her dog had a name. It didn’t. But at the end of our visit, she said, “I’m going to name my dog Harli.” This is why we do what we do! To make a difference for even one child makes every “inconvenience” of volunteering (the training, the grooming, the commitment of going when you say you’ll be there, even if you don’t feel like it that day), it makes it all worth it.
Harli has had the misfortune of requiring 5 surgeries over her lifetime. Two for ruptured ACLs (at 3 and 4 years old) and 3 for cancer. Each time, she has recovered and bounced back as if nothing happened. I always tell people that’s part of what makes her a good Therapy Dog for the kids. She’s been there, done that. So she becomes their champion too. I actually wrote a book about one of her knee surgeries, called “Harli Goes to the Hospital”. It tells her story of how she hurt her leg and the things that she experienced (pictures of her x-rays; not being able to eat breakfast the morning of surgery; getting checked in at the hospital and getting weighed; getting her ID band; having her IV started; waking up after surgery; her bandage; and how she progressed through her recovery to finally being able to run on the beach, which she loves.) I use this book for some of the kids that we visit to give them something to relate to. And to find encouragement that Harli went through this too, and now she’s doing great! It’s just one of the “tools” that we have in our bag.
Her surgery in October 2015 showed her cancer was malignant. We, and the vet, expected 6 months to a year. September 2016, it was time for our re-evaluation. Her cancer had begun to grown back, but had not seemed to impair her mobility, cause her pain, or dampen her spirit for her work. I vacillated continually for a few months whether I should retire her & not renew. But every time we got ready to “go to work”, she was so enthusiastic. As long as she was physically able, and as long as she seemed to enjoy what she was doing, I wanted to let her do that as long as she could. She has a younger sister (a five-year-old golden) who is also a therapy dog. So she & Harli take turns, which gives Harli some down time every month. Her cancer had grown back, evidenced by very large tumors on her back and side. But they were not painful. (When kids would ask about them, I would say she was trying to become a camel, but her humps slipped.) The vet confirmed that she was doing “amazing” for her age and her cancer. So with his full blessing, we continued.
Last month, the tumors began to become too large for the skin containing them. So, the decision was without a doubt, it was time to retire. Had this not been the case, how would I know when it was the right time? This answer is easy for me. She would tell me. When you work this closely and have this kind of relationship with your dog, you learn to trust each other. She trusts me… that I will care for her; that I will keep her safe; that I will always be her advocate, no matter the situation. And I trust her… that she is reliable each and every time; that I know what stress looks like on my dog; and that because she’s gone through 5 surgeries, I know what this dog looks like when she’s in pain. It may look different for my younger dog – only time will tell. But for this dog, for Harli, I know what pain is for her. And this dog…. Even with tumors that are indescribable, with dressing changes twice a day, and the fact that she wears women’s Spanx (which, by the way, is an amazing way to keep bandages on your dog’s torso!) …. This dog comes running to me every day when I get home, brings me a toy to play tug or fetch, is beside herself with joy when we play hide and seek and she finds me… this dog still has life to live. Maybe no longer as a Therapy Dog, but she’s not finished teaching me and her little sister a thing or two. And she gets to continue to just be who she is every single day, until she tells me otherwise.
Story provided by Diana Doolittle