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By Gay Published: June 2, 2009

Four years ago, my husband was walking our big Golden Retrievers along a trail about thirty-five minutes from home. He called me to tell me that he felt odd and didn’t think he could make it back home. He told me he loved me.

I asked him where he was on the trail, and I told him I was calling 911 and that he should sit down or lay down out of the walking/biking/buggy path. I knew he was having a heart attack.

I was able to tell the responders exactly where my husband was and how to get an ambulance onto the trail. I told him that there were two huge dogs with him, but that they were friendly, and they shouldn’t be concerned about the dogs’ interfering in any way.

I kept in phone contact with Buz while the ambulance arrived. I was driving 90 miles an hour down country roads (I know, I know, that’s stupid and dangerous) and reached the area where I could pull off and see the ambulance off in the distance. I was in flip flops and couldn’t run down there fast enough, so I confiscated a bicycle from an Amish girl. It was a small bike, and I was riding with my knees above my ears, but I pedaled as fast as I could and yelled, “I’m coming, Buz! I’ll be there, Buz!” but the vehicle pulled away. I took the bike back to the bewildered woman, and saw a young man walking my retrievers up the trail. They happily wagged their tails when they saw me, and he let them loose and they ran to me, were all over me as if to tell me that Buz was sick.

I put them into Buz’ car and drove the little distance to the small hospital where Buz was taken, and I called friends to go pick the dogs up and deposit them at home. Buz was life-flighted to a large hospital (I went along) and he had some stents placed and ultimately, he had open-heart surgery.

Rehabilitation was long but worthwhile. He went to our local hospital’s cardiac rehab and did very well. When he started to exercise, very shortly after his release from the hospital, it was Savannah and Jake who walked with him, up and down the driveway, one on each side of him. They didn’t mind that it was about 100 steps, turn around and do it again—over and over, for a half hour, then an hour. In the afternoon, when he took a nap, they lay beside him. In fact, except to relieve themselves, they never left his side. Several of the cats cozied themselves by him.

He had recently had double knee replacements, which is a grindingly painful procedure, but they were with him. It is difficult to navigate about our house, an old Victorian with several staircases and cubbyholes. Savannah and Jake were with him as he took his first tentative steps, and when I was at work, I knew they were his guardians.

Our darling Savannah, the most beautiful, loving, loyal, devoted dog you could know, died of seizures. We were with her as our vet tried valiantly to save her until it became apparent that is was hopeless. Jake was by our side as we said good-bye to sweet Savannah, and as we wept with grief, Jake licked Savannah’s nose and touched her until the end. We went home and sat together, and took comfort from one another.

Now, Buz is facing a hip replacement, but I know that Jake will be at his side, watching out for him, and the cats will wander in to make sure he is comfortable. If not, they will curl up beside him and groom him.

Researchers have finally proved what animal lovers have known all along: An animal makes you feel less pain, more able to deal with grief, less lonely. As you pet a dog or a cat, your blood pressure goes down. Your heart rate steadies.

When I worked at a nursing home, I would often take in one of the dogs or cats. They knew instinctively not to wag their tails with too much enthusiasm, because a big dog might inadvertently knock over a fragile old woman. So, the dogs would sit and scoot on their bottoms until they reached petting distance and received with pleasure the love and joy that a beautiful animal can bring a lonely old soul. I would drop off one of my particularly docile cats in one woman’s room, who would seat herself and prepare room for the cat on her lap. An hour or so later, I would come back to find cat and friend asleep, the woman’s hand petting the cat just under the chin, where a cat enjoys a tickle, and the cat purring her a wonderful lullaby.

If your animals are well-behaved, by all means consider making them therapy dogs. There are several organizations that certify dogs: AKC Good Citizen, Therapy Dogs International, Alpha Society, as well as local shelters that will certify a dog or cat. If you don’t have the certificate, and the home will allow it, take your friendly, well-mannered dogs and cats for a visit to a nursing home. All of you will love it.

By Gay Fifer, owner, Parsley Hollow, Inc.,

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