Like everyone else, I’ve spent a lot of time crossing things off my pre-pandemic calendar: a visit to see the California grandkids; rehearsal for my handbell choir; dinner with a pal at our favorite restaurant.
But among the cancellations that made me the saddest were the monthly visits I make with my dog, Dug, to a local nursing home, the Cape’s two hospitals, and an adult daycare center. COVID-19 put all that on hold.
Dug misses visiting too, given his heavy sighs as he flops on the kitchen floor to spend another day watching me work from home.
Dug is a rescue dog that I’ve owned for about six years. He’s around 12, but I have no idea his real age or breed. He looks like a golden retriever that’s been dipped in black ink, except for his white belly and gray-sprinkled snout, and on the days he needs reassurance, I tell him he’s a flat-coat retriever. He has long hair, lots of it, and expressive eyes that are excellent at begging for treats. He’s a gentle soul except when it comes to squirrels. He hates the beach but likes baked goods and, in his younger years, was quite the counter surfer. Given the choice of a steak or a box from Dunkin’, he’d choose the doughnuts.
Three years ago we became a certified therapy dog team through the Companion Animal Program, one of the therapy dog organizations on the Cape. We attended 12 weeks of classes, learning to ignore wheelchair alarms and, yuk, not to eat things off the floor. Dug liked it because he met other dogs and received lots of treats. I liked it because I got to meet a great group of volunteers - and their dogs - who travel to health-care facilities, group homes, libraries and schools all over the Cape to spread cheer, connection and tail wags.
Plus, we got uniforms - a handsome blue t-shirt or vest for me and a snappy red bandana for Dug. He gets excited if I just take it out of the cupboard. We even have our own hospital ID badges.
On our first visits, I was stunned at how just a few minutes of petting a dog or talking about a pet could cheer someone up. Oftentimes, I was the person being cheered up. If you’re having a bad day, there’s nothing like seeing the smile on someone’s face when you walk into their hospital room with a dog.
There are all kinds of dogs in the CAP program: some are nice to hold; some do tricks; some even wear costumes. Dug is one of the laid-back seniors. He likes to amble into a room, give someone’s hand a lick, and then plunk down on the floor, happy to just hang out, like a big, black furry rug. Meanwhile I get to chat, one of my favorite activities, and learn a bit about the lives of people who live here - the farmer, the librarian, the theater director, the World War II vet. We hardly discuss ailments or surgeries or pain, but move on to more important topics, the birds outside the window, the photos of their children, the puzzle they're working on or the black dog they owned as a kid. For a few moments, we are just people, not patients or volunteers, just folks having a chat.
I miss that. I miss connecting with my regulars at the places we visit -- David and Sam and Helen who loves dogs. The staffs who work so hard to care for them and who also appreciate the stress-relieving therapy of rubbing a dog’s belly. I miss the dogs, Felix and Mattie and Bella, and their owners, many of whom give far more time than Dug and I do.
They are all a reminder that as much as we think of the Cape as a place, it is a community of caring hearts, both two-and four-legged.