S a m a n t i c shttp://www.potomacvalleysams.com/Samantics.html

People Animals Lovehttp://peopleanimalslove.org/

Those who have walked their Samoyeds in public can swap stories about the countless people who, captivated by their beauty, fawn over their them and pose for photos with them.  My Samoyed, Gidget, and her Potomac Valley Samoyed Club friends have stopped traffic in Washington, D.C., been mobbed on club walks during the annual Cherry Blossom Festival and had thirty strangers photographing them en masse on the Capitol’s West Lawn this last December during the club’s annual Holiday Walk (we had 20 Samoyeds at the Capitol Christmas Tree!).

Every time Gidget or any of her buddies walk on the National Mall they pose for photos, often with busloads of tourists who will want group and individual poses.  I’ve become adept at operating other people’s cameras, sometimes with several hanging off my arm as I cycle through them all while they hold Gidget’s leash.  Last year, a guy from South America was so enchanted he seriously tried to buy two of Karla’s puppies on the spot (a non-starter, of course). 

PVSC Samoyeds have posed for visitors from all over America and the world -- even Siberia!  Some apologize for the disruption of our walk but I assure them that sharing Samoyeds is half the fun of having them.

Knowing the response Samoyeds engender in public, imagine what it must be like to be an individual waiting for hours for a loved one to come out of surgery or be confined for long periods in a hospital or nursing home environment and then have a well-groomed Samoyed walk in the door.  

Imagine being on the handle end of the leash knowing that it was your pup bringing such joy and comfort to people in such situations.  I have had the remarkable privilege to witness many such encounters and also to experience the profound feeling of sharing my own Samoyed, Gidget, with so many grateful patients, their families, friends, doctors, nurses and other caregivers.  Sharing Gidget - a certified therapy dog - in this way has been the greatest volunteer experience of my life. 

This experience is available to anyone in the Washington, D.C. area with a reasonably well-behaved, 100%-friendly dog.  Gidget (not an obedience champion but well socialized and “reasonably” well behaved) was certified through a DC-area non-profit therapy dog organization called “People Animals Love (PAL).” I became aware of PAL shortly after joining the Potomac Valley Samoyed Club.                

A conversation with PVSC member Wendy Friedlander led to Gidget becoming a certified therapy dog.  Wendy had for some time been active with PAL.  One of her Samoyeds, Samantha, was a well known and very popular therapy dog who visited, among other places:  Inova Fairfax Hospital in northern Virginia.  After meeting Gidget, Wendy suggested I look into having her certified as a PAL therapy dog.  And so I did.

Certifying a dog with PAL entails filling out an application, a health record that can be downloaded on their website and paying a fee.  The health record must be signed by your veterinarian.  After those requirements are satisfied, you will be signed up for a Saturday orientation -- currently conducted at the Armed Forces Retirement Home on North Capitol Street in Washington, D.C.  The PAL website provides more detail on what orientation entails.  You can count on 20 or so dogs being there -- a definitive test on how well socialized your Samoyed is with other pups.

Assuming you and your pup pass the orientation session (nearly all do -- the self-selection is pretty conclusive), then you choose the venue(s) of your choice (if there is an opening, some are more popular than others) and complete two supervised visits.  If all is satisfactory then you and your dog are a certified PAL team!

PAL is not a huge time commitment, in terms of visits.  You can do as many visits as you wish and have time for.  PAL asks that you average at least an hour each month. 

Some venues may have additional requirements.  For instance, Inova Fairfax Hospital in northern Virginia required that a visiting dog be bathed within 24 hours of visiting.  And during our years visiting the hospital, additional requirements were instituted requiring that the people half of the therapy teams also become official hospital volunteers and display a hospital identification badge.  The Armed Forces Retirement Home, meanwhile, had no additional requirements.

Gidget joined Wendy’s Samantha in becoming a Wednesday evening regular at Inova Fairfax Hospital.  I’d wrap up my work as early as possible, pick up Gidget and make the drive out to the hospital.  Rush hour traffic could be tedious but was forgotten the moment we pulled into the hospital garage. Gidget knew once we pulled into the garage that she was going to “work.”  We’d take a few minutes for touch-up combing on the tailgate and then I’d put her therapy “cape” on and a super soft, always-clean leash and collar. 

We’d often spend a lot of the time in the garage visiting with people and even more time in the hospital lobby, where the dogs -- typically 3 or 4 dogs -- gathered before their shifts began.  Hospital assistants -- usually interns or fellows -- would come down to the lobby and do a cursory check of each dog’s coat, teeth and derriere to ensure cleanliness.  Then they would accompany us to the rooms where a patient has requested a visit (and their parents, if the patient is a minor).

Every visit was to a particular ward:  pediatric oncology, high-risk perinatal or psych.  Pediatric oncology was the ward that some of my friends thought would be especially difficult to visit, but it was usually more upbeat than perhaps anyone who has not been around one could imagine.  The pediatric ward at that hospital is cheerfully decorated, brightly colored kid cars are parked outside many rooms and the child patients were as likely to be wearing Winnie-the-Pooh jammies as a hospital gown.  Sometimes they were not confined to bed, though perhaps with an IV tube attached to a pole on wheels.

We were not given any specifics of patients‘ backstories or prognosis.  At most, unless they or their parents wanted to talk about it, I might be informed if their immune system was particularly fragile at that time.  And I had done some research beforehand and discovered that the survival rate overall for children with cancer had improved dramatically over the past few decades.  Nevertheless, back in the hospital garage I found myself praying for them every night before I’d turn the ignition key to drive home.  It became a ritual.  I had not prayed so often since I was a child.  And that is part of the magic of this sort of volunteerism:  it takes you out of yourself.

To Gidget, they were just kids to comfort and entertain.  She could sense, I think, who was fragile, sad and perhaps more.  A couple of visits stand out: 

One evening we entered a room where a thin, fragile-looking boy about eight years old lay flat on the bed.  He was a long-term patient enduring chemo.  The lights were dim and I assumed it would be a low-key visit.  But I asked if he wanted Gidget on the bed and he said yes in a quiet voice, so my hospital handler put a clean sheet over top of the bed for Gidget to lay on. 

Gidget normally would stay in one spot on a patient’s bed and wait for them to direct their interaction.  So I did not keep the leash taut.  But in this instance, before I could react, Gidget immediately went over to the boy and sprawled on top of him, laying her head just below his.  I gasped, thinking she was surely crushing him and possibly disturbing tubes or monitors.  I moved to pull her off, as did the hospital handler. 

He stopped us with a raised hand and hearty laugh and said:  “This is great!!  Oh wow!  Please leave her....”

Gidget had diagnosed the situation in an instant and knew exactly what that boy needed and wanted.  So she gave him a full-body hug.  The only time she ever did that.  Usually she stayed at the foot of the bed or laid alongside the patient.

Another especially memorable visit was with a 9-year old girl during the week between Christmas and New Year’s.  The hospital was unusually quiet.  After completing pediatric oncology visits we were asked to do an unscheduled visit to this girl who was in the pediatric intensive care unit.  During an operation for a brain tumor there had been complications and she was paralyzed on her right side and comatose.  Her father was by her side. 

Gidget was placed at the foot of the bed.  The girl’s hospital gown came to her knees and her legs below the hem were exposed.  Just as she had with the boy she gave the full-body hug, Gidget quickly moved to the girl’s paralyzed right leg and with her tongue began what can only be described as a vigorous massage, from the bottom of her foot to her knee.  Clearly she was striving to “wake” the leg up.  She paid no attention to the other leg.  Gidget kept this up for half an hour.  At one point, the girl’s left eye opened.  I did ask about her on a future visit and was told that she had been transferred to another facility in Virginia.  One thing I know for sure, Gidget did everything she could to help her.

Most visits were not so dramatic.  The high-risk perinatal ward contains women whose pregnancies are difficult or complicated.  Some of these women are in the hospital for months and their movements may be extremely limited or they may be confined entirely to bed.  More than a few said the worst thing about being in the hospital was missing their dog.  Their family and friends could visit but their dogs could not.  I recall one woman who was having to lay flat for an extended period to carry her baby to term and on the dresser next to her pillow were some photos -- all of them her Labrador Retriever. 

A significant number of these patients did not speak English. Fortunately, dog is a universal language.

The psych ward group visits were poignant.  These were two-dog visits and our pups would simply walk around and be petted.  We had absolutely no background on these patients but did surmise that depression was a common affliction.  Who wouldn’t be depressed being in a hospital for a long time?  You have to think that dogs’ capacity for being nonjudgmental and relentlessly cheerful are particular strengths in this setting.

Gidget’s other visits through PAL have been at the Armed Services Retirement Home -- starting when the facility received a large influx of residents all of a sudden when they had to be evacuated from the Gulf Coast when Hurricane Katrina was approaching. 

Gidget has also been to DC’s Martin Luther King Library where a program was instituted in which dogs hang out with children while they read.  Some children respond well to the calming effect of a dog and again the canine propensity for being nonjudgmental is helpful when a child is having problems with reading.  Hopefully none of the books includes the word “Greenie.”  That could test the composure of even the best-trained pup.      

There are other programs for certifying therapy dogs and PVSC members have participated in them.  There are some facilities, particularly nursing homes, that have their own programs for pets to visit with residents.  These are all worth checking out.




by Tamara Somerville

© 2011