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I read an article this week about therapy dogs and the difference they make in patients’ lives. I was reminded of a PALS (Pet Access League) visit I had with Amber years ago. Amber and I used to volunteer with PALS, where every couple of weeks, we would go to a nearby extended care facility and visit the Alzheimer’s ward. Amber was a gentle soul who loved just sitting next to people and letting them stroke her.

She was the perfect PALS dog. She would sit quietly and didn’t show concern or fear of she was handled a bit roughly or bothered by strange noises or smells. She was the stereotypical golden retriever. Not so much into dogs, but she loved people. Over time we got to know the residents, and they would tell us the stories of their lives growing up and the many dogs in their lives. Even though their short-term memories failed them, their long-term memories were rich in detail, as they recounted their childhood stories and the love of their pets. Some of the residents loved seeing the dogs arrive and would come to greet us as our little troupe of canines made our way down the hallway. Others would be less pleased and would scatter off into their room to wait it out until we left.

Every week as we made our way down the hallway. The residents whose disease had progressed remained in their beds in their rooms. We left these people alone unless one of the nursing staff asked us to stop in. On this one visit, as Amber and I made our way down the hallway, Amber began to strain on her leash to go into this one room. She had never done this before. The lady lying in bed was frail and appeared to be sleeping. Her family, who were all sitting around the bed and talking in subdued voices, surrounded her. I felt very uncomfortable and tried to get Amber to leave, but she wanted nothing to do with it. The nurse in the room waved us in, and the family looked up. Amber went around and visited each of the family members, and I had assumed that this was what she wanted after all of her insistence. But no, after greeting everyone, Amber immediately went to the bedside, where she popped her front feet up on the bed and began to nudge the woman’s arm with her nose. Amber wasn’t being gentle. She was pushing her nose under the woman’s hand and trying to flip her hand up onto her head. This was not the Amber I knew. Amber wouldn’t put her feet on the bed without being invited.

I was stunned and embarrassed by her behaviour. She wasn’t relenting. After what seemed like an eternity, the woman raised her hand and grumbled and told us to go away. I was so embarrassed. Amber was oblivious. She was pleased with herself with that goofy grin on her face – mission accomplished. As I pulled her away, she trotted beside me as I tried to leave the room as quickly as possible. Before I could reach the door, the man who had been sitting beside the bed rushed over to me. I was prepared for the worst, but instead, he hugged me. He knelt and rested his head on Amber’s head. When he looked up at me, there were tears in his eyes. I started to apologize, but he stopped me before I even started.

He said he wasn’t angry. He came over to thank us. He said that was the first time he had seen a response from his mother in a long time. He said that she had not spoken for many months and to hear her voice was a gift. He said that they were not sure how much longer she would be with them. He went on to say that she no longer recognized him or his children, but on that day, he saw a glimpse of the woman that she once was. He gave Amber one more pet on the head before going back to his mother’s bedside.

Amber and I left the room and went home. We didn’t visit with anyone else that day. On future visits, we would walk past that room, and I would sneak a glimpse inside. The shape of a small woman would be visible from the doorway until one day; there was a different person in the room. Amber never tried to enter the room again. She would walk by on her way to visit with all the other residents gathering in the lounge waiting for the dogs. And she never again put her paws on a bed without being invited.

That event was many years ago. I remember every detail like it happened just yesterday. I do not know why Amber did what she did. Was it ‘the unusual’ with everyone gathered around the bed or the hushed voices? I never understood, and I have never forgotten it. Something got into her that day. Something, even with all her training, would not dissuade her. So do dogs know when something is wrong and that we need them? Or do they pick up on something different and do what they can to investigate. I don’t know the answer, but I know that I had never seen this behaviour from Amber before and never saw it again. So in my view, I think they do know when we need their help, and I hope that if I am ever in that same situation, that a pesky, persistent dog stops by to shake me awake.

Amber left us in 2008. I love you, Amber and I still miss you.

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