Tuesday, September 1, 2015

An Animal Chicken Soup for the Soul Story

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An Animal Chicken Soup for the Soul Story

My children have always been involved in 4-H. Heavily into the animal divisions, with a few other projects, they took their county fair presentations very seriously. I was a professional dog trainer and handler and one year my two youngest children entered our registered dogs in the Beginner Obedience class. My fourteen-year-old son, Jeremy, wanted to do something with the dogs too, but he was very independent and didn’t want something that everyone else was doing. He came to me in the spring, several months before fair, and said, “I’ve decided to make my dog project count.” He proceeded to show me his detailed plan for his Citizenship project providing canine therapy dog visits to local nursing homes.
In the north central portion of Minnesota where we lived, this was an unheard of concept. Jeremy told me he had already done some of the legwork by asking his brother, sister, and two members of the 4-H club to come along and assist. What he needed from me most was to choose the appropriate dogs and teach the handlers how to present a dog to an elderly and perhaps bedridden person. We contacted several nursing homes and finally found one that agreed to allow our therapy dogs to visit. Jeremy called his buddy 4-Hers and set up a training schedule. When all five kids were comfortable presenting the dogs, we made an appointment with the nursing home.
The first day we visited I went along as driver, photographer and supervisor. We went from room to room, sharing our smaller trained therapy dogs and puppies and with as many as possible. Each child carried a dog and a towel to place on the bed in case someone wanted the dog there. We were a hit! The joy these folks exhibited was genuine and wonderful. They all asked us to visit again.
On our next outings, we left earlier so we could visit more residents. Jeremy enjoyed watching people’s faces light up as we entered a room, but there seemed to be something disturbing him. I asked if he was having a problem with the project. He became solemn. “I love coming here but I want to make an even bigger difference. I’m not sure how, but I know there is something more I can do.”
Each time we visited, the residents anticipated it with greater enthusiasm. Some even had family members bring in photos of their own dogs to share with us. We listened to stories about their pets, their families, and their lives when they were young. Each sat constantly petting one of the dogs, gaining the comfort and unconditional love only an animal can give so freely.
One day we ventured into an area we hadn’t been to before. As a nurse’s aide led the way, we came upon several rooms that were quieter than most and not decorated. The aide motioned for us to continue following her to the residents who requested visits further down the hall. Jeremy stopped and peered into one of the rooms. The aide reprimanded, “There is no use going into that room; that lady hasn’t moved or spoken in months. She is unresponsive and pretty much alone.” Jeremy looked at her and then at the French bulldog he held in his arms. Calmly he replied, “That’s why I am here.” He proceeded into the room and stood hesitantly. The woman was ghostly white and showed no signs of life. She lay prone and didn’t move so much as her eyes when we entered. Jeremy took a deep breath and moved to the side of the bed. “My name is Jeremy and I am here with my therapy dogs. I brought a dog to see you. Since you can’t come to see the dog, I’d like to place it on your bed. I have a towel so no hair will get on your blankets.”
The woman did not move. Jeremy looked to me for approval. I nodded. He moved to the side of the bed where her arm was exposed and placed the towel on the bedspread. While all this was happening, the aide left to get a nurse. By the time Jeremy was ready to put the dog beside the woman, two nurses and the aide were in the doorway. As one began to tell me we were wasting our time, I raised my hand to silence her. She huffed, but remained quiet.
Jeremy placed the dog against the woman’s arm. He spoke softly, “She won’t hurt you. She came here just to see you.” As he spoke the woman’s head shifted slightly. The glaze in her eyes seemed to disappear. Jeremy allowed the dog to nestle in close. The woman raised a weak arm and placed it on the dog’s back. Although she had no words, she began to make sounds. Tears brimmed her eyes as she moved her hand along the hair. The nurses rushed to the bedside and began pressing the nurse call button. More people rushed into the room. There was not a dry eye in the group. Jeremy looked at the aide and reiterated, “This is why I am here.” Then he looked at me, tears flowing unashamedly down his face and he said, “I made a difference.” I hugged him and acknowledged that he certainly had. When it was time to leave, Jeremy gathered up the dog and the towel and said to the woman, “Thanks for letting us come into your room” and into your life.” She smiled at him and touched his arm.
Jeremy received the highest award for his Citizenship project, and went on to the state level where he earned Grand Champion. But for Jeremy, the ribbons were nothing compared to his biggest award – the touch of a hand and the smile from a woman who was said to be a waste of time.
Loretta Emmons

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