Candy Puterbaugh & Dodger: What a Dog Taught Me

Candy and her yellow Labrador retriever, Dodger, first registered as a Pet Partners team in 2011. Over the next decade they would provide the comfort of therapy animal visits to people in a multitude of settings. Sadly, their career as a team ended with Dodger’s declining health and the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic; Dodger passed away in 2021. Candy shared this story of how Dodger changed her life, as well as affecting all those they visited.

A smiling blond woman embraces her yellow Lab therapy dog, both looking at the camera.

It took our yellow lab’s lifetime to realize that I admired my dog. I never thought it possible to look up to a dog like a human. But Dodger changed all that. And it didn’t hit until we lost her in December 2021.

My love for dogs came gradually. Growing up with my dad’s hunting dogs—who lived in kennels—didn’t set the stage. Years later I didn’t know what to expect when my husband and I got a Keeshond and a Siamese cat as companions for our toddler. For a while, Shadow and Tootsie became the little brother our son longed for (until he later got his wish). Our faithful, furry companions were with us through thick and thin, and it was unthinkable but symbolic when we lost them both the year our oldest son left for college.

The house was too quiet. A puppy search ensued. We couldn’t not take home a fluffy Australian shepherd, Caddy, with a black heart-shaped patch on her side. We also fell for another Siamese, Yoda, chock full of personality but so homely that friends often asked, “Is that a cat?!” Where Tootsie had been perfect, Yoda was a rascal. But he and Caddy saw our youngest son through his school years and into college.

Up to then our dogs had been lovable but high-strung and somewhat high maintenance. In our sixties, we were ready for someone mellow. Learning from books, dog-training shows, and my veterinarian father-in-law, we set out in search of what could be our final dog.

We were smitten with every puppy we saw, but hadn’t made a choice. We finally hit gold at a Vancouver home. As we passed a gate, three large, friendly yellow Labs ambled over. Nearby in the huge yard were cats, pigs, kids, a barn, and a lake. In a cozy corner inside the well-kept house, nine golden balls of fur wriggled close to their mother. Like love at first sight, we knew one would be ours.

After visits every few weeks, the day came to choose our girl. My husband conducted personality tests—clapping, putting each puppy on their back and at heights. I held them in front of my face. All but one avoided eye contact and squirmed to get down. That one looked me in the eyes calmly. Our 24-year-old son, watching intently, pointed and said, “That’s a cool dog!” We had our puppy—my golden girl.

Worries about the drive home faded as she settled into my lap and fell asleep. Over several days, every possible name rolled off our tongues until we settled on “Dodger Dog,” the hot dog of my husband’s favorite baseball team. Our days with Dodger had begun.

She made it easy. We grew to trust her completely with every human and dog. She was so mellow that we started therapy dog training when she turned one. During our final class, the eight dog teams took light rail to the airport where we spent a few hours in the mayhem of elevators, escalators, and people of all ages in motion—some with wheelchairs and walkers. If the pups could handle this, they’d be fine in a hospital setting. Nothing fazed Dodger. Later, I was the one trembling before our final therapy animal team test. We weren’t perfect, but we passed!

For almost 10 years and 1,000 hours, Dodger and I visited patients of all ages. She was a magnet for eyes and smiles as we walked the hospital halls. People asked to pet her. Kids hugged her, some not wanting to let go. A little boy asked her to kiss. Some patients cried because she brought back memories of their dogs.

Dodger calmed patients in my husband’s medical office three times a week. Some only wanted appointments on what they called “Dodger days.”

For a few summers we attended a camp for children who’d lost loved ones. One shy boy had never walked a dog. He slowly and carefully walked Dodger with me to a lakeside ceremony, sitting on the grass, leash in hand, until dark.

Sometime after her 11th birthday, Dodger’s hind legs gradually weakened. Six months of water treadmill therapy helped a little. The last few months she needed lifting with a harness and became incontinent. When the sparkle left her eyes, we knew it was time.

Memories of Dodger live on. I didn’t know a dog could be my teacher. Without speaking, she taught me this:

Always wag your tail.

Make eye contact.

Be friendly but avoid those who growl.

Be calm but bark loudly when needed.

Protect your home and family.

Walk every day.

Enjoy nature.

Always be yourself.

Take life in stride.

Let those close to you know you love them.

Nine days after losing Dodger, on what would have been her 12th birthday, we brought home Bailey—a yellow Lab puppy.

—story provided by handler Candy Puterbaugh

Originally published in 50plus Magazine