Crossing over

The work we do as a team, Cajun and I, so often is of the unremarkable. We work for two therapy dog organizations, one that allows us to choose our venue; the other that places us every week at the local hospital.

But let me introduce you to Cajun. She is a chocolate field lab rescued from the wilds of Louisiana, a state so entrenched in inhumanity to animals that they are routinely discarded — tossed into dumpsters, thrown out of trucks along roadsides, abandoned in the woods, shot, starved, abused for sport. There, in the deep South, there are no leash laws and no one spays or neuters their dogs. Or cats. These animals are merely dispensable. If they don’t hunt, get in the way, are an obstruction to a new life, or any life, or produce unwanted pups on your watch, they are dispatched in the most expedient way possible.

So Cajun was observed for weeks by her eventual savior chained to a tree in a white trash trailer park. No food. No water. Then, one day, she ate her way through that chain — a survivor at any cost — and made her way to the very road from which she had been observed. Free at last, she was picked up immediately and given a second chance at life. That observer figures Cajun was being held to become a puppy mill mamma. That bad luck changed to golden opportunity with her rescue. Two months later, she was crated and place in a box truck and thereby made the exodus out of the South to us in Massachusetts.

Fast forward to now. Cajun is seven. She has worked as a therapy dog, brightening people’s days for the last four years. It is our way of giving back. On one notable occasion we are visiting a group of seven or eight girls in lockdown. This means, Cajun and I are escorted through as many as six steel doors to get to them. For one half an hour, 30 short minutes, they are children playing with a dog. All thoughts of loneliness, anger, abandonment, rage vanish before a dog rolling on her back, exposing her stomach to them in a gesture of extreme trust, and they forget. Forget why they are there, forget why it is they are supposed to be angry and simply play with a dog.

These are all ‘special occasions’ for us. That 30 precious minutes of abandon. But there are, too, magic moments where we know we have connected in a very special way. In one of these groups of children was a girl who no longer wanted to be thought that. She had changed her name to a boy’s name. As we did introductions, the others in the circle chided her, made fun of her wanting to be a him. But we, Cajun and I, accepted her new ‘me.’ I called her by the name he wanted to be called. And Cajun simply nuzzled him with the love she gives unconditionally.

But the most profound difference we know we have made, Cajun and I, happened at Emerson Hospital this summer. We arrived on the floor we visit weekly and were asked to go first to see an elderly man who was agitated and unhappy. It was clear to me the nursing staff was grasping at straws to comfort this man, and perhaps, maybe just the thing, was a visit from a dog.

With his permission, Cajun hopped up on his bed and lay down beside him. I don’t know how it is she knows but she absolutely does know when a human really needs her. A dog lover from way back, he immediately began to smile and rub her ears, and she, in turn gave him gentle kisses. I did not see an agitated, miserable man. I saw a guy engaging with an animal he loved instinctively, and the two of them, old gent and aging dog, bonding in a hospital bed.

A week later when we returned to the hospital floor for our regular visit, the nursing staff took me aside and told me what a gift Cajun had been to that man. Within an hour or so after Cajun’s time with him, he peacefully slipped away. Cajun, the staff told me, had given him the peace and comfort he needed to relax and let go.

Hocus pokus, you may well say.

But I am reminded of a tee shirt a friend once gave me and which I wear on all our therapy dog missions. It reads: Angels are Sometimes Disguised As Dogs.

— Belle Songer