Rudy, my therapy dog and I are honored to be part of an AARP CT live presentation tomorrow, August 18th at 1PM, about the work of therapy dogs. I’ll cover training, what’s important in a therapy dog, and an in-depth look at the work Rudy does in schools, hospitals, nursing homes and the court house. Hope you can join us! It’s free but you must register: https://aarp.cvent.com/DogsAug18.
Here we are almost 11 months into a pandemic that has turned our lives upside down. We’ve adjusted: we reach for our masks, avoid crowds, don’t invite friends over, wash our hands. But today, thinking about this, I was stuck by what I miss most: strangers. And I believe that this is particularly difficult as many of us are sustained by people we don’t know.
Before the pandemic I was busy: I was teaching workshops for library staff, promoting my books, writing, and had an active schedule as a volunteer with my therapy dog, Rudy. We worked with special needs students in two schools, visited two local hospitals where we met with patients in locked wards as well as throughout the hospital, and on occasion, when there was a trial of a young person, we showed up in court.
Meeting strangers expanded my world. It connected me to lives that are very different from mine. It exposed me to situations I couldn’t have imagined, like a seven-year-old boy sitting by himself in a small, white room in the crisis center. It pulled me out of myself and also gave me new ways to be myself. I was the teacher, the volunteer, the nice lady with the dog. I could see the difference I made. I felt useful. (Even my dog, Rudy, seems a bit bored with no work, and I can’t say the word “work” without him running to the back door.)
I’ve been reading the letters of Henri Nouwen in a wonderful collection titled “Love, Henri”, which sums up my goals for the New Year and articulates exactly where I believe many of us are right now:
“Well, no wishes but much hope, no big plans, but trust, no great desire, but much love, no knowledge of the future, but a lot of empty space for God to walk in!”
Stonington Harbor, sunset
Here we are in the 8th month of a pandemic, and things are not a lot better. And I confess that my guard has slipped–I don’t always have a mask with me when out walking the dogs, we went to a neighbor’s for dinner and sat outside, but were not six feet apart, and last weekend we went apple picking with our daughter and her family and had one of the grandchildren sleeping in our motel room. I get this–having been so careful for so long and not having gotten sick, it feels as if it’s okay to relax a bit.
I have no medical background so this is not replacing the important guidelines we have from the CDC. This is just my story. My daughter and I were making plans for the holidays, and it occurred to me that I could ask my doctor’s advice. Here are some of things she suggested:
I really love summer. For lots of reasons. It slows me down, I get to swim and garden and eat outside and see extended family. It’s been a while since I updated this blog on our pandemic project: Dixie, who was in a shelter for eight months. (She’s the cute one gazing out the window at the daisies.)
Something magical happened at the three-month mark just a week ago. She relaxed. She trusts us. She’s no longer charging at the window every time a car or person goes by our house. And she’s beginning to be curious. Last week we had our 14-year-old granddaughter, Molly, staying with us, and after a few days, Molly could pat her, and they even played together.
I am not a patient person, but I realize that trust takes time. Dixie knows now that she is part of our pack. She knows we’ll care for her and protect her. And new people can come into our home (just close family as we’re still very careful because of Covid), and she’s learning that they won’t harm her. How’s that for a wonderful part of summer? The pandemic gave Dixie the best transition possible: we were home, no one came over, and we rarely went anywhere except our for walks with her and Rudy, our other dog.
It’s really hot today and the dogs don’t want long walks. But they can gaze out the window, they can relax in the cool house, and I’d say that’s just about a perfect summer day.
My sister calls Dixie, the dog we rescued five weeks ago (the tan and white one) my pandemic project. And I guess she’s right. We already had Rudy (the black dog–a bit hard to see) and Henry our cat. But when we saw a notice on a FaceBook forum that she had been in a shelter for 8 months and needed special care, we had to find out more about her.
We called the shelter and arranged to visit. As we parked the car, we saw her in a large fenced in yard with the volunteer, Diane. We glimpsed a sweetness in her face, but as soon as we walked into the enclosure, she ran as far from us as she could get. We chatted with Diane, we sat down, but she would come no where near us. Once Diane gave us pieces of chicken, Dixie would gradually approach as long as we didn’t move or look at her, and she’d grab the chicken and run. We stayed for almost an hour, wondering how we could adopt a dog we couldn’t get near.
We told Diane that we would return the next day with our dog, Rudy. We figured that would be the deal breaker–if they got along, we had hope. If they didn’t, it would be too hard. They got along, which says a lot about Rudy–he’s a large dog who likes pretty much everyone–and he and I have been missing our work as a therapy dog team during the pandemic.
We were still unsure. It was Friday and we told Diane that we needed to think about it carefully over the weekend and that we’d call her either way. There was another person interested in Dixie, but Diane felt that our home offered more stability, so we were at the top of the list. It’s all we talked about: yes, we should do it, no, it was too much work–too disruptive. But something about her won out and on Sunday we called Diane and said that we’d be at the shelter Monday morning to bring her home.
The pandemic gave her exactly what she needed: quiet, no guests, no travel, non-stop companionship from my husband and me, plus Rudy and Henry. Within a few hours she was a different dog. She took over the couch and smiled at us. She licked the cat. She and Rudy chased each other. We took her on hikes, and everyday she gets at least three walks.
Last week I was teaching a Zoom seminar for library staff about living through a pandemic, and through all the challenges, I kept hearing creative ideas. A children’s librarian built a set in her house for story time and other projects. Another bought chickens so that her family would have eggs. Others are involving their children in aspects of their work and learning to focus on tasks, instead of the overall job. Some are using meditation apps and are making sure to take breaks–especially outdoors. I told my class of almost 100 that I hoped that they would more than survive the pandemic–that they would learn to find new ways to do their jobs that were creative and satisfying. Just like adopting Dixie.
This beautiful photo of a sunset in the coastal town where I live, was taken by a neighbor. Just looking at it makes me feel calm. Makes me stop and consider how lucky I am to live here. As we’re all doing our best to not spread the Covid-19 virus, as we wave to our neighbors but don’t hug them, as we wear gloves when we run into the supermarket for a few items (probably not toilet paper or Purell), as we watch the news and try not to panic, it’s easy to wonder what we should be doing.
My dog, Rudy, a working therapy dog, looks at me and I can’t explain to him why we can’t go to the hospital or the schools where we were volunteering. But he’s happy to go anywhere so we’re taking more hikes, exploring new trails, keeping active. Something as simple as this gives me hope, takes me out of the endless loop of crisis thinking, and makes me grateful for the healthcare workers who are on the front lines. They don’t get to stop. They don’t have extra time. They’re taking care of us.
One of the most surprising things I’ve learned from hundreds of visits to the hospital with Bella, my first therapy dog, and now Rudy, is that the staff often need us more than the patients. They rush out from behind the nurse’s station and throw their arms around the dog. They get down on the floor, hugging, patting, and acting as if they’re witnessing a miracle. Which in a way they are. Dogs are experts at comfort, at being present, at generosity.
Rudy is stretched out on the rug under my desk, snoring slightly. If he could offer advice I think he’d tell us to take a deep breath, get outside, take a nap, stay present. That’s what we should be doing.
Just this past Saturday, Rudy, my therapy dog and I were invited to speak at the Waterford Public Library in Waterford, CT. I had prepared a careful outline of the stories I wanted to share about both Bella, my first therapy dog, and Rudy, my current therapy dog who took over after Bella died in 2018. Having done this for a while, I knew there might be only a handful of people there, and that if I were lucky, I’d sell a few copies of my book about Bella: “Joy Unleashed: The Story of Bella, the Unlikely Therapy Dog.”
Three children and eight adults showed up. One little girl was terrified of Rudy and screamed if he even looked at her. The second child was Sean, shown in the photo below. And the third was a boy of about eight, who had Autism. I read a short passage from my book about Bella’s work with cancer patients, and could see the kids squirming. The room we were in was in the basement of the library right under the children’s room and Rudy, who is sensitive to noise, started to shake-I think he thought it was thunder– and tried to hide behind the chairs.
Things were not going well. That’s when it dawned on me I had to sit down on the floor with Rudy, comfort him and tell the group about his past, how I trained him and work he does. But best of all, Rudy loves to do tricks, so before my talk ended. the two boys got down on the floor on their hands and knees and Rudy jumped over them. The little girl who had been terrified, fed Rudy treats. And the tricks helped Rudy forget about the noises overhead. I sold one book and laughed all the way home. And every time I look at this photo, I realize that it’s really smart to let go of plans and be ready for wonderful surprises.
Photo from Dana Jensen, The New London Day, January 12, 2020.
Here we are at a local hospital, taking part in a new program in a geriatric-psychiatric ward. I’m with Rudy, my therapy dog (the big black one) and my wonderful friend, Deb is with her dog, Ethel, and we’re joined by Mabel, the head of volunteers. The two things that will (almost) always cheer you up are dogs, and volunteer work. Deb and I in our blue jackets are easily identified as volunteers. Both Deb and I have been doing this for seven years–first with our previous therapy dogs, and now with Rudy and Ethel. We know they’re remarkable, we know they somehow always seem to know what to do, but last week they made two patients cry. Both were older men and the dogs were such a welcome change from tests, and drugs, and treatments, that these were tears of both joy and relief. They patted our dogs, hugged them, told them that they loved them, and thanked us over and over for bringing them in.
When I wrote my book, “Joy Unleashed” about my first therapy dog, Bella, I realized that I would never be bored or lonely as long as I had a therapy dog. But last week, after this incredible visit, I knew I’d be smiling for a long time. Rudy took a long nap in the back of my car on the way home–it’s hard work being an ambassador of cheerfulness.
Let’s face it. You don’t want to be this guy. He’s having a hard day at work and is probably feeling stuck, resentful and burned out. What I’ve learned from teaching seminars on how to stop burnout–and how that enhances customer service–is that small steps often yield big rewards. Here are some pointers from the last few classes I’ve given for library staff:
- Set reasonable goals and celebrate when you reach them
- Pace yourself–set time limits for large projects and take regular breaks
- Look for creative ways to change your job that will decrease stress
- Make rewards and recognition part of your everyday work culture
- Teamwork often means you can get help for the things you don’t do as well as others
- Take breaks and try really hard to not eat lunch at your desk (You think you’re being super-productive, but in fact you’ll be super worn out)
- Cultivate your sense of humor. Nothing beats laughing as a huge stress buster.
We are all expected to no more with less. Demands come at us from inside our organizations and from customers and patrons. Pay attention to what works for you. Ask your colleagues what helps them. As I say in my class, “enjoying your job is an inside job.” What can you do today to make that come true?
(Photo courtesy of Adobe Images)
TURN YOUR BACK
I’m the type of person who believes in action. In getting things done. So it’s odd for me to advocate turning away, leaving something undone, letting things happen. Here’s how I came to this insight. I’ve been wanting to write a biography of my great, great, great grandfather John Ireland Howe for almost 23 years, and this past winter I decided that I either had to do it, or forget it. And that I had to put in real effort before making that decision. I knew that something or somethings were holding me back, so I created a schedule. I logged in and logged out. And gradually the book had a life of its own, and I knew that I would stick with it.
But it gets even better. While this was going on, I put my speaking business to the side. But then emails and phone calls came in, asking me if I could speak at a conference or for a staff development session. It amazed me that work came in without a huge effort. I checked my calendar, said yes, and went back to working on the book. Now I have a first draft completed and am lining up readers to help me make sure that I’ve written it for its intended market: middle school students.
I’ve known for a long time that it’s important to make an effort and then not make an effort, but this seemed almost magical to me. By freeing myself from procrastination and that nagging feeling that I was neglecting something I wanted to do, I was not only energized, but also had the great fun of seeing work come to me. It feels like grace. So sometimes, I think it’s a really good idea to turn your back.