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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Greatest Gift

What a wonderful holiday, time with family, friends, and he was a little spoiled as well.  Grandma and Grandpa treated him with new stuffed animals, bones, and some grain free treats. He was able to go out and enjoy some chuck it in unseasonably warm weather as well as play with his human cousins. It was a wonderful weekend overall and Gopher and his little family look forward to the next time they get to be with the rest of the family.

After the day itself had passed Gopher had to rush home so he could return to work, there is nothing like capping off the holiday like spending some time giving therapy.  We got home and Mom and I were boring tending to things around the house, checking on the cats, and unloading the vehicle. I grabbed the mail and sorted through the various junk mail and bills, tossing aside most of it to be recycled. Then I came across a red envelope that caused me to pause, it was obviously a card, but it was addressed as such:
Gopher (The Dog)
Saint Paul MN 55108
Very amused I called Gopher over thinking it was a Christmas card from one of our friends or a dog friend, for Gopher. I opened the envelope to find a card with a picture of a snow covered Golden Retriever, inside the card was a gift card, and the inscription read, “Thinking of you this holiday season.” It was then signed by the senders, I was very puzzled as I did not recognize the names at first, and then it hit me I did know these lovely girls, they are two people Gopher and I had been visiting with the last few weeks. I showed it to Gopher and Carla and we both got a little teary eyed.

I have said before many times in these entries, that there is no thank you needed for visits. Gopher not only loves to work, but seems to be naturally inclined to this work. Many peers have even commented on how ‘special’ Gopher is as a therapy dog. Both Carla and I have also found the effect this work has on us and Gopher so far outweighs what some people say is an inconvenient volunteering schedule has never once seemed like a burden or intrusion on our lives. Actually it has been quite the opposite, and we find ourselves wanting to go on more visits, and with the permission of the facility and Gopher are always happy to spend a little more time than scheduled with a family.

A card like this has never been on our radar, or even remotely considered an expectation. We were taken aback by the thought and the generosity. A family who is going through so much wanting to take the time to send Gopher a card for the holidays was truly the greatest gift. Carla, Gopher and I will treasure this for many years. Gopher and I thanked the family when we saw them on our visit, but it was impossible to convey how much it truly meant to our family. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Hope you have a 'Golden' Holiday!

Happy Holidays and Best Wishes for 2012!

As 2011 comes to a close Gopher would like to thank everyone who has read about our adventures. He also wanted  to thank all of our friends and family for their amazing support, love, friendship and a few special people of note.

The amazing grandparents, who their grandpuppies love very much.

Aunt Carla (not to be confused with Mom Carla) for her friendship support, and amazing blanket so that I can R.E.A.D., and for always being willing to 'get lost' for Squirrel.

Aunt Joan, not only because the boys love you so very much, but for the support you have given our whole family this year.

Aunt Lisa your support and kindness to Gopher and I has been overwhelming, and more appreciated than either of us can ever say.

Uncles Duck, Todd, Greg, Drew, Darnell, and Aunts Annie, Tracy, Mindy for your friendship, support and hiding for little brother Squirrel as he trains for SAR.

Thank you all so very much, those mentioned and unmentioned, for a year with some dark times you have been the light for our family.

Gopher and I also want to pass on wishes to the families we have visited this year. You have made our lives amazing and cannot thank you enough for letting Gopher and I come in, we hope the comfort Gopher provided many of you helped through the darker days. I hope the families who have been able to go home with their loved ones enjoy the holiday and best wishes for future health.

For those who are spending their first holiday season without their loved one, I hope you have the love and support you need to celebrate in their memory. They are with Gopher and I every day and have changed our lives in profound ways, and will continue to be with us as we try to help comfort others.

I hope everyone is able to celebrate the holidays to their hearts content, and remember the best gifts are the ones that can be shared. Even if it is a delicious bone with your obnoxious little brother.

Love and Joy to all....

Chad, Carla, Gopher, Squirrel, Graham, Perry and Bear

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

December Adventures and Winter Safety

Happy Holidays everyone from Gopher and family. Gopher does not work all the time and one part of this blog is to talk about his adventures in addition to his experiences. In addition to typical walks and chuck-it play Gopher is also having some big adventures in December.

His first big adventure was to go to the Holidazzle Parade in downtown Minneapolis. (Quick Disclaimer: Gopher and his brother Squirrel have been gradually exposed to bigger and more complex environments since they were puppies.  Don’t just walk out the door and take your pup to an event like this, it can be very scary and could have bad consequences. Please consult with an experienced trainer before seeking attending complex events with your friend.)  Gopher and Squirrel went with Mom, Dad, Aunt Tracy, and two cousins to see co-worker’s of Mom’s march in the parade. It was a lot of fun with floats and people lit up in their various costumes. Gopher knew he was there to see the parade, but obviously the crowd was there to see him and he greeted every friendly smile, pat on the head with a wag of the tail. 

Gopher and Squirrel loved the young families who were in the viewing area with them and at one point before the parade, Gopher must have believed he was at work as he laid down in the gutter next to a little boy to let him pet him, and raised his paw, because as we know the best therapy comes from Gopher’s chest. 

This same little boy also spent the entire parade with his arm around Squirrel as both of them watched in wonderment.  A lot of fun was had by all, but Gopher still feels we missed out by skipping the street vendor’s popcorn stand.

Occasionally Gopher gets to go for walks in ‘special places’, this month we went to Summit Hill to see the decorations, or as Gopher considers it shopping for a more appropriate palace.  Although the decorations were lack luster this year Gopher thoroughly enjoyed his special walk with Squirrel, Simon, Aunt Annie, Uncle Greg, Mom and Dad. None of the mansions seemed to meet his desire so he was happy to go home and cuddle on his familiar couch.

Gopher’s biggest adventure is getting to go to Grandma and Grandpa’s for the Christmas holiday. The mere mention of Grandma and Grandpa causes pricked ears, a pinwheel tail and a whimper of excitement. Their house brings so many opportunities for exploration and times to paly chuck it in their massive yard. Not to mention so many people come to their house to see him and give him pets, it is sheer puppy ecstasy.

Gopher’s visits as a therapy dog weekly and we have many experiences to discuss in upcoming entries. Since today is the Winter Solstice we wanted to pass on some advice for winter safety for you and your best friend.

As Gopher reminds me often that even though it is cold outside your pet still needs exercise. Make sure you clothe yourself and if necessary your friend appropriately for the cold temperatures.  Also consider shorter but more frequent outdoor exercise and play to keep you both safe. 

Paws, and their little pads on your friend are especially susceptible to injury this time of year in cold climates. Frost bite can occur quickly to the exposed skin; the pads can also become dry and crack in the cold and from the salt on roads and sidewalks. Frequently check paws and wipe with warm moist cloth to clear off salt. Trim fur in the paw, or have this done by a professional groomer, the fur is a great insulator, but too much can cause the accumulation of ice and snow around the pads creating frostbite. You may also use products such as Musher’s secret or booties to help protect paws.

Happy Holidays to everyone and have fun; keep you and your pup safe, and all of your training and experiences positive.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Coming Soon: December Adventures and Winter Safety Tips

The holiday seasons bring many fun adventures for Gopher, and the dead of winter reminds us of some safety tips to keep you and your pup safe. Stay tuned.

You can also follow Gopher and our Adventures and Experiences at:
Facebook: HRH King Gopher
Twitter: Chad Burgess@HRHKingGopher

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Symbol of Support and Love, Becomes a Moment of Embarrassment

Names/conditions and other personal information from a Therapy Visit cannot be shared.

Chad Burgess, Carla Donovan-Burgess and Gopher are volunteers and do not officially represent any institution mentioned in these visits.

The experiences, conversations are true and really took place the names of persons, if given have only been changed to protect the privacy of those we visit.

Gopher decided to commit his first faux pas as a therapy dog with a family we had been visiting for about a month. This mother who we will call Rebecca is young, intelligent and proud mother of two daughters that Gopher and I have had the fortune to get to meet as well. The youngest, who I will call Sabrina, is a mere toddler, nervous and excited by everything around her at the same time. She was intimidated by Gopher at first, but it did not take long for our gentle boy to reassure him that he was a lot of fun.  Gopher is fabulous with her as he has been with all children, and shows such patience with her even when she unknowingly stands on his tail Gopher just looks up at me and then back to his tail, making it known he would like this behavior to stop. True mark of a therapy dog not to go after the offender who is making them uncomfortable, but look to the handler to make it stop.

Rebecca’s older daughter, Katherine, is being treated for cancer, and I have only had the opportunity to meet once due to her treatment schedule, but she met and loved both Gopher and his co-worker well on her visit.
Rebecca and Sabrina visit with us nearly every time we are at the facility. Little Sabrina playing, visiting with the dogs, and the humans, while Rebecca strokes the dogs and talks to their respective handlers. The conversation is always lighthearted and typically centers around the dogs, as it should giving her a much needed break from the illness that has been consuming her days.

The visits had been typical visits and Gopher performed admirably and exceedingly well every time. Then came the day where it changed, fortunately only for a moment, and I think only noted by me and anyone who might have noticed how flushed my face became. Rebecca came down one day and I did not notice anything different at first as I was keeping an eye on Gopher who was a little extra bouncy that day. We settled into the room and Rebecca and Sabrina got down on the floor to pet Gopher and the other team that was there. Rebecca removed the hood covering her head and that was when I noticed the change. She had shaved her head. An act of pure love and support for her daughter who had lost her hair in the treatment and a showing of support that she was not alone. I had witnessed this before of mothers, fathers and families of cancer patients to show support, but this was a first for Gopher. I never suspected this would be difficult, alarming or even odd to him. Then is happened, fortunately for me I was paying attention to Gopher.

As Rebecca moved the hood from her head she fortunately turned at the same time to visit with the other therapy dog so did not witness what happened next.  Gopher dropped his paw that had been up to remind people that his best therapy came from a pleasant chest rub and lifted his head up, clearly looking at something with great interest. As I, moved over attempting to discover what had drawn his interest so acutely so I could address it appropriately Gopher stood up. I started looking around attempting to see what had grabbed his attention when he told me himself, by gently sniffing the air behind Rebecca’s head and then sitting down and coking his head to one side. I was so shocked by what I had seen that I almost didn’t stop him as he went to raise his paw and nose toward her head to get a better sniff. Fortunately I diverted his attention in time. 

Gopher is pretty amazing and is calm and attentive in almost any scenario, he had seen patients he visited lose their hair before, and obviously witnessed haircuts. I am not sure what he found so odd, interesting about Rebecca’s freshly shaved head, I was just glad I was attentive enough to him that it did not manage to become an even more embarrassing situation. Flushed and embarrassed I did some tricks with Gopher and he never attempted to observe Rebecca’s haircut any more that night or on any subsequent visits. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Over the last few weeks Gopher and I have said goodbye to a number of wonderful families who have come into our lives during visits with Gopher. It made me think about the goodbyes we have had our first year. Some were with us, only a short time and others nearly the entire year of our first visits we saw them. I cannot get over how much these families have meant to me. We always thank them for visiting with Gopher and wish them well, and their departures are bittersweet.

I cannot be happier for the families who are getting to go home, for a reprieve from the illnesses that have engulfed their lives for far too long and get an opportunity to return to normalcy. I have witnessed so much; from pain, to relief and joy. I have had been gifted with the opportunity to be in the presence of these families, met parents, grandparents, siblings, Aunts and friends.

I have taken joy in getting to see their ill or healthy child laugh for a few minutes while they petted Gopher, watched him do tricks, or helped me have him do tricks. I have seen the family and friends of an ill child sit down for a few minutes with Gopher and pet him, begin to smile and see the stress, fear and exhaustion in their faces fade for a few minutes. Sometimes we spoke and other times we let these moments pass in silence. I have seen Gopher comfort and ill child who was not having a good day, and even though the next day would be better, did not have the energy to laugh, but would sit and relax a few minutes petting Gopher. Other times it was more difficult while maintaining a caring but professional distance as they used Gophers fur to wipe away tears while hugging him. Exclamations of Gopher’s here from across a room followed by a child wearing a mask running over to him. Other times, a parent, or aunt, would just look at me and say, “I am so happy you are here today, I needed to see him.” They would sit with Gopher and just pet him, no other words being exchanged.

Other times there were bustling conversations, Gopher and I heard about their dogs, cats, birds and iguanas. Their hopes and dreams, always miraculously looking toward the future, and the possibilities, letting me see real strength, something I don’t think I would possess if the situation was reversed. I have also got to watch the wonderful staff and other volunteers who dedicate their lives or spend much more time than I do trying to make the best of bad circumstances, and am awestruck by their compassion and love and caring I have seen. I can only imagine the gratitude of the families who have gotten the opportunity to go home feel towards this wonderful staff.

The transition I have seen in the families has also been amazing and I am so happy that Gopher and I have been able to take part. Many times when I first meet a family they are somewhat apprehensive and unsure, which is to be expected, given that many of them were just living life a few short weeks, months, or days ago and were blindsided on a random day with a potentially devastating, illness, accident, or condition. Now they have to make the best of it, before they have a moment to deal with the blow. After a few weeks, they begin to relax and you can see that although they are not home, they are beginning to feel at home. Families watching others children while they run an errand or go to a treatment, or just need a nap, the community grow, and they all play their roles. Strangers not too long ago, but now friends with an irrevocable bond, it is human nature at its finest and a blessing to get to witness. Then the goodbyes, relief and joy combined with tears and sadness of leaving their new community.

I have seen many of these goodbyes, especially in the last few weeks when 6 families were finally able to take their children home again. They will never know the gifts they have given Gopher and I, nor the tears shed at their departure, the bittersweet mixture of joy and sadness. Most of them will never remember my name even and that is fine, as I am just the other end of the leash and I know they will never forget Gopher and their time with him. Few of them will never know, since they did not have the opportunity to observe him like I do the almost mystifying skills that seem innate in Gopher. Without provocation he seems to know when it is the time do tricks, play, or gently place his head in the lap of someone to let them know that he is there, that he cares. They also never see his excitement he has in going to work, sometimes crying and pacing the seat several blocks away as soon as he knows where he is going. They also will never see how he sometimes looks around the corner for them, maybe an old scent of a family who has left, or a noise hoping to get to see them again, but never upset when he doesn’t as he knows he seems to know there is more work to be done and more people to see.

The last few weeks we have watched the departure of many families, but always the continual introduction of new families, Gopher and I know that there is much more to do, and much more we will learn. I wish the departing families the best, and hope that if our paths are to ever cross again it will be under different circumstances. I also wish, despite the difficult situations that brought them into our lives, they know how much I appreciate having the opportunity to spend an hour or two a week with them, and I only hope Gopher and I were able to comfort them for even a few minutes.

Goodbye and Good Luck.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!!

Happy Thanksgiving, Gopher and us have much to be thankful for this year, here is just a small list, in no particular order.

1. Gopher
2. Carla
3. The patients who let us into our lives and how they make me feel.
4. Good Health.
5. Loving friends and family.

1. Gopher and Squirrel
2. Chad
3. The patients who let us into our lives and how they make me feel.
4. Good Health.
5. Loving friends and family.

1. The kids I visit.
2. The scratches and kisses they give me.
3. Auntie Emily, Carla, Annie and Uncles Duck, Greg and Todd.
4. Grandma and Grandpa.
5. Mom and Dad and the times I get them all to myself without Squirrel.
and tennis balls and chuck it and post visit pancakes.

We are also thankful for all the therapy dogs and all the work they do as well as the distant cousin to the therapy dog the wonderful service dogs we have met it is a tough job.

We have truly so many things to be thankful for. Post a reply to this and let us know what you are thankful for, today and everyday.

Gopher, Chad and Carla

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Final Visits: The Next Step

Over the last 10 weeks I have been in intensive training for the next area of therapy Gopher will be venturing into. He obviously needs no further training, but per the entity I signed up with I needed 24 hours of training over 8 weeks. Why all this training you might be asking yourself? No, I am not preparing nor exposing Gopher to a potentially harmful or dangerous setting. I am preparing myself and him for visiting in a person’s home, nursing facility, or assisted living environment. This might not sound too different from traditional visits, if there is such a thing as traditional visiting, but the key difference is that there is not plan to ‘fix’ or ‘treat’ their illness or infliction, only to provide them comfort in the form of pain management or with company of volunteers with or without dogs, thus is the magic of hospice. 

Gopher and I over the coming months will begin visiting first a single patient, then adding on as I see how he handles the new therapy that he will be delivering. There will be the inevitable end point, some patients we will get to know quite well while others we may only see once or twice. Death and dying is such an odd and often taboo subject in our society, so it will be very interesting for me to see the different cultures and persons and how they handle their own mortality.

My biggest concern is how Gopher will handle this type of therapy. He is very adept at his job as it is now, often whimpering and crying as we approach one of the facilities we visit. In an earlier entry, Trust the Dog, I noted that he may be among those animals whose acute sense of smell or other device allowed him to be among those animals that have been noted to sense death is coming. How will he react if/when this is a constant state of being? Will he stay by and comfort as he seemed to do with the child, or will he tuck tail and leave the room as other well trained therapy dogs have been known to do when attempting to do hospice work? Only time will tell and I am looking forward to the new adventure, and seeing how Gopher performs, and the joy he may bring to not only the person dying, but their family and friends who are preparing to lose a loved one as well.

Personally as the handler in all of this I have no fear or nervousness about how I am going to handle the situations. Growing up in a small town where the primary income of the family business was based in funerals has not made me callous towards death, but has made me realistic, understand death as best as anyone living can, and not fearful of dying. I am also excited to become part of such a wonderful program. I have lost three grandparents in my adult life, 2 were in nursing/24 hour care facilities, and one was at home under hospice care. Due to those experiences I was turned off by the thought of 24 hours of training at first, but decided to give it a shot, and am wholly impressed and in awe of the program established here. They seem to truly get what hospice is, and treat it with respect, dignity and joy in their work of providing comfort to those who are dying. They do not shy away from death, or show any hesitancy but embrace the concept in providing one with as much dignity and independence as is possible when dying. They even hold an annual remembrance ceremony for families, volunteers and staff, not a memorial, but truly a celebration of life which I had the privilege of attending. I just hope I am able to live up to the dignity and example they have set for me.

In the meantime Gopher has had an eventful few months. While I was in training he visited with Mom, and although he did well she stated more than once that she could tell he didn’t feel right about not working with Dad. We did get to work together on one Sunday and have since continued our regular visits. This last week he was able to say goodbye to several children who after months of treatment were able to go home. He even had his Uncle Greg and Aunt Annie joined him on a visit, although not his favorite place where he can truly show off his skills. He liked having them there and hope one day perhaps one of his coming poodle cousins might join him at work. 

In addition to beginning Hospice in the coming weeks, we will be actively starting to R.E.A.D. in 2012, and pending examination on 12/6 his little brother Squirrel might start working with him on occasion. It has been and is continuing to truly be a great adventure, our Gopher seems to know his purpose and executes himself well, in the last over a year in the over 50 hours of visits and seemingly countless patients we have seen tears, laughter, joy, intimate moments, and have been welcomed into so many people lives at their most vulnerable. They all say thank you and show so much appreciation, hopefully through our actions they know that it is Gopher and I who are truly appreciative of being there. 

Monday, October 3, 2011

How do I become a Therapy Animal team?

This entry today is in response to a continuing question I receive, “How do you make your dog a therapy animal?” I understand the question, but first off we need to address some language in the question and then I will discuss what is needed to become a registered therapy animal and therapy animals in general.
This question would serve better with the language “How did you and your dog become a therapy animal team?” This might sound picky, but it is important to realize that neither my wife nor I 'made' or ‘make’ Gopher do this. We wanted to do this and hoped he would enjoy it, if at any time he did not want to do it, showed himself as disengaged or disinterested the work would stop. I cannot emphasize the importance of this enough; it is not a difference in levels of how rewarding or wonderful an individual experience may be, it is more black and white, the animal is engaged it works, the animal is not engaged it does not work.

The only way to find this out is to start training and be observant of the dog in the situation, so even after being trained and tested be prepared for it might not be the right fit, or be cognizant of what your dog likes. Gopher has a strong preference towards kids and senior citizens, so we go to places that allow him to play to his desires. With therapy animals present in anything from schools, libraries, psychiatric facilities, prisons, hospitals, group homes, the possibilities are nearly endless, so look for your animals desires, and if the first location does not work, try another, but also be prepared for the fact this work might not suit your animal. There is no solid barometer in determining this, but there are some telltale signs, some will be rooted out in evaluation, like spooks easily, others will become a judgment call, just look for the signs.

Another crucial element that I cannot stress enough is to do it the right way! Go through some training and be evaluated by Delta Society, TDI or another nationally registering organization. This is just as crucial as keeping an eye on your own animal to see if they enjoy the work. DO NOT EVER think, well Fluffy is such a good dog and she likes people I will just take her down to the nursing home to visit people, it’s no big deal. First and foremost, know that you are liable for any damages your animal may cause, Fluffy is walking on leash and the leash trips someone, you pay, or Fluffy knocks over IV tower damaging equipment attached and injuring the patient YOU ARE LIABLE. Finally and worst case Fluffy bites, you pay and in some areas Fluffy pays by being labeled a danger, or worse being destroyed. Testing and registering with an organization does not guarantee these things won’t happen, but what it does give you is insurance, so in the event there is an accident and someone trips over a leash, you are covered. It also gives you the ability to note that you are a Registered Animal Team and it will open more doors for you.  Finally one of the most difficult parts of the human existence is the ability to look inward at a relationship and yourself. I had a neighbor once who insisted her little terrier was the sweetest dog there ever was, would not hurt anyone and actually loved people. I never once saw this dog not growling, barking, and snapping, she would just laugh at how cute this was. This animal would to anyone else obviously not be a candidate for this work, but she thought he would excel. He failed. We sometimes need that outside examination to allow us to see an error or a flaw. When people choose to just bring their dogs into a facility without doing the registrations and evaluations, they not only open themselves up to liability, but if things go poorly, they hurt the perception of therapy animals. This person obviously thinks the work is worthwhile, but out of laziness or failure to educate themselves, they can close a door to a facility in allowing therapy animals to visits.  Take the time, educate yourself, pick the best fit for you and your animal, become registered, and present yourself appropriately since when you enter these facilities all eyes are on you and your animal.

Time commitment is high in doing therapy work, you must be at your scheduled visits facilities plan these around you and not being able to show up has a negative impact. After that as with all volunteer experiences it is what you make of it. Gopher is currently on track to go on up to three visits a week, which is three hours per week, without preparation and travel time. We are choosing this, some teams only visit once a month. It is entirely up to you.

Now you know there is training, testing, and a time commitment involved and it is time to add some new words or concepts to your repertoire.  A therapy animal when working is not your pet, they are your partner and you form a team.  You will both be participating in Animal Assisted Interactions (AAI) which is an umbrella term that covers Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) and Animal Assisted Activities (AAA).  The majority of people fall into the AAA category, this is your general visits, rather it is doing a R.E.A.D. session in a library or visiting a nursing home or hospital. These visits have no specific goals and are done so on your own. AAT is more involved and requires the leadership of a staff member who is going to use and your partner to obtain a specific goal; this could be improved articulation of a partially paralyzed limb after a stroke, to improved reading ability in a school via the R.E.A.D. program.

Finally you have made it through training, passed your evaluation and received your identification card(s) in the mail for you and your partner, you have a new vocabulary, and you are sure you and your partner are ready to go, wait not so fast. There is more to be done.

Once you have everything in place it is time to select your facilities, and the type of work you will be attempting. If possible join a local therapy group that will help dramatically in facilitating this. If you are on your own you will need to contact a facility see if they are open to having a therapy animal team, and what their requirements are. If you are part of a group they will have most of this information available to you or could assist you in the process. Once you have selected a facility you and possibly your partner will need to go through their facilities paperwork, training and documentation. To put this into perspective,  the end of October 2011 I will have attended  over 40 hours of facility specific training, filled out and submitted 15 applications, read 10 manuals, 12 books, taken three exams and been evaluated, been screened and passed eight background checks and have had five mantoux readings (test to confirm no active tuberculosis), this is all after any training/ interviews/vet visits with Gopher. Once we were registered it took nearly three months before we could go on our first visit!

In the end the time and effort are well worth it. I and my partner are confident, competent and relaxed team that can handle a wide variety of circumstances. I have had an array of wonderful experiences only a handful of which have been documented on this blog. I would not trade one second of training, education or applications that we have completed to get to this point. In the end there are a number of resources available to find out about therapy work, so take your time, educate yourself, work and train with your partner and do it the right way even if you only want to visit once every other month YOU will make a difference, just make sure to represent yourself, your partner, and this work well. Gopher, Carla and I would be happy to answer any additional questions you may have. Our personal recommendations are Delta Society for registration, and if in the Twin Cities therapy classes under Carol Ouhl at Twin City Obedience Training Club.

Monday, September 19, 2011


Chad completed the course work, and is sending off the registration materials soon to become an official R.E.A.D. team with Gopher. Skills and tips learned here are also going to become part of his repertoire in other therapy situations.

Upcoming Entry: How to become a registered therapy team with your partner.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

About A Girl

Names/conditions and other personal information from a Therapy Visit cannot be shared.

Chad Burgess, Carla Donovan-Burgess and Gopher are volunteers and do not officially represent any institution mentioned in these visits.

The experiences, conversations are true and really took place the names of persons, if given have only been changed to protect the privacy of those we visit.

"I have boxers, he's cute." Those were the first words little E spoke to me before quickly settling in next to Gopher for our visit. She has been one of the sweetest and most faithful visitors of Gophers the past few months,  and what an amazing little girl. E always came to us with a smile on her face and a knowledge of dogs well beyond most children of her tender age, but like most children we visit she has been facing an illness much beyond her years. Her and her family never stopped amazing me throughout our visits, and her positive attitude was nothing less than contagious.

"Hey Dad, when I get better can I get a dog like Gopher."

"You know when I get better I am going to go camping and fishing, I have never gotten to go before, and I will be better soon and get to go next summer."

"He's cute, I love him, do you think when I am better, I can teach my dogs to be like him and come back for visits?"

Mom and Dad both confirming all things, without hesitation or even fear in their eyes, they knew she would be better, and this was nothing more than a bump in the road, a temporary illness that needed a band aid. The strength of the three of them would overwhelm me on more than one occasion, and on our drives home I would tear up for a few moments thinking about them and hoping that all her dream for the future would come true. In Little E's world there always was a future and it would be better.

She would come and visit Gopher at every visit, always with a smile and always excited to see him. I never got to see her whole face since she was always wearing a mask to protect her compromised immune system. Despite the mask you could always see the smile and sparkle in her eyes. She stroked Gopher and would work her way into a position where she would sit using his side as a back rest and Gopher would arch around himself around her making a perfect chair. Little E would sit there talking with Gopher or talking with me all the while stroking his neck, head and back. During our visits she would hug him many times with Gopher being perfectly accommodating wrapping his head around her neck giving his best doggy hug. Following each hug she would give him the best kiss she could by pressing her mask into his fur and kissing the inside of the mask.

The last time Gopher and I would get to visit with E was also Hawaiian night at the facility, and what a night it was. The lobby area and our visiting area transformed to brightly colored rooms of streamers. music was playing, a DJ was playing music and engaging with the kids, and food was everywhere. It was a dreary evening outside and the spirit inside could not be more different than the activities within the facility.

E was having her caricature done when we arrived, and staff set Gopher and I up with Leis. Gopher and I then went over and said hello, and she gave him a pat over the wall and told me she would be with us in a minute. We worked our way through the crowd and settled into our typical spot in now a highly decorated room. Gopher was highly distracted on this visit due to the music, people and food everywhere. I seemed to be the only one to notice this as everyone who came up and loved him talked about how well behaved he was and loved him, but no one loved him more than E. She came up promptly after getting her caricature completed and adorned him with more leis, hugs, and her own special kisses. 

Gopher and her spent most of the evening together. Gopher did one round of limbo with her, and even dance with her by sitting back on his haunches and letting her hold his front paws and sway together. He kept himself low and let her dance with him for many minutes and looked into her eyes, despite being several inches taller than her. E went off to do some crafts, and after craftily painting a box in the shape of a heart returned it to him stating "Look Gopher what I made for you." She then went off again only to return a little bit later with a sandal shaped ceramic box, craftily painted and even autographed. Gopher and I thanked her again, me verbally and Gopher by delivering a solicited 'kiss' on her cheek.

E has been one of many of faithful Gopher fans. Her attitude, and her families attitude for a situation that could easily overwhelm any one person left an everlasting mark on me. Her gifts to Gopher have been placed in a safe visible spot in my home to remind me of them and their strength.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Gopher’s Biggest Fan, and Consistent Therapy ‘Patient’

It has been a year myself and Gopher have been able to fulfill our work as a therapy team, and three years since the journey began, and it is amazing what I have been able to see, but even more amazing as to what I have learned.

There are very few people who have insight into me and my true nature of vulnerability. The most common and widespread misconception people have about me is that I am confident and even arrogant, both could not be further from the truth,  but I enjoy this perception so I do what I can to propagate it. My fears are not too different from any one else but they are still mine and no matter what level of commonality I know exists with my community it does not calm the sea of fears I have.

I talk a lot, and often, and I love nothing more than being engaged in a good debate, so many do not realize that every time I speak I am afraid. As an infant I had a feveral seizure following the vaccine pertussis. The cause is unknown; it had been thought to have been either an allergic reaction to the vaccine itself or a low dose mercury poisoning as I was vaccinated from a multiple dose vial that had low level mercury under the name thermosial that is used as an antibacterial and preservative of some vaccines. The resultant seizure damaged the speech and fine motor movements of my brain and I had to learn to walk and talk again, but from this point on when I spoke it would be accompanied with a minor speech impediment. My sister was one of the few people who could understand me and often would speak for me when I was very young. As I grew older her as my shield would go away and my peers would ridicule me as children often do when something was strange or different. The result would be that even at 30 I am still very afraid that when I speak no one will understand me, or dismiss me as my speech impediment would give the image of another defect in my mental faculties.

The fear of speaking is one of my fears that are more unique to me and not shared by as many in the population as my other fears. Being raised by parents and grandparents who have instilled a fear in me of always telling people how you feel as you don’t know what will happen, my grandmother especially always telling us. “Good night, I love you, see you in the morning, I hope.” Makes me want to take the time now to tell some good friends, Duck, Greg, Annie and many others I count as friends in the theater community how much I look up to them and almost envy them as they speak and put themselves out there in ways I cannot even imagine due to my fear of simply speaking. You all are wonderful in so many ways, but probably never realized how much you amaze in that simple ability alone.

My other fears are more traditional the biggest one is failure and this last year has been the most difficult in my life. I am afraid as most of people are, of disappointing others, friends, my mother-in-laws (Yes, I am a lucky man and I get two), my father-in-law, my sister, my mom and dad, my wife, and myself. Persons like myself who have what seems like an overwhelming fear of failure resort to two things, becoming withdrawn, which I do to a point, or overcompensating which I am more likely to do. So I respond, I take on challenges that seem insurmountable and when I tackle a task I deflect making sure the credit goes to someone else as it is not me who could have done this, and when it goes poorly rather I am the cause or not I take over all of the blame, as no matter how many are involved it is assuredly my fault. I also seem to have a string of bad luck, and I blame myself for it, even if it is out of my hands. I get an internship of my dreams, and have a blast, but it goes bad, my life is threatened, and it is I who failed not the horrible mental disease of my intern advisor gone awry it is my fault. I settle into a position I despise, not due to the work or my peers, but due to leadership and struggle in a bad economy where everyone is suffering to find something else, and am unsuccessful and it is me who is failing. I am laid off and struggle to fill the void of work and income, and it is entirely my fault. Personal finances suffer and it is my fault since I am out of work. Nevermind the overwhelming evidence that this is the second worst economic times in America, that there are many, many people in my position, and often in more uncomfortable situations than myself it is assuredly my fault, I failed. This fear is not unlike the majority of my peers and my community, but as is the same with all people no matter how logically I know I am not alone in feeling these, I still feel alone in this fear.

I am extremely blessed with a loving wife, and loving family, and for three years a loving dog, that has performed as a therapy dog to me more in our visits than any other person I have visited with.
Since he is the focus of all our visits, and I trust him and have so much confidence in his ability to help others, I have been able to talk for the first time in my life with adults and children for the first time in my life without fear. Persons with any level of speaking impediment will understand how much of a relief it is to be able to speak without being afraid for the first time in memory. This fear, although not crippling exists with me every day rather I am speaking to a stranger or my mother, it is irrational as most social fears are, and cannot be corrected by any amount of reassurances by loved ones or friends. More often than not those reassurances heighten the fears, and the thought right or wrong that they are only giving me reassurances because they care and want to protect me. On our visits though, thanks to Gopher it is gone.

It is nearly inexplicable how much this changes ones perception if only for an hour or so a week my fear of speaking is gone. I hope with Gopher’s help I can start extending this to other areas of my life, and may one day leave this fear behind.

The fear of failure unfortunately though has not left, not even for an hour of vacation, but does it ever really leave someone? However because of Gopher, and the success he has had in therapy work thus far, I am able to be truly confident despite the fear. Most people who have taken the time to read this will believe that I do all of this work and the blog for one of two reasons, first that I am an altruistic and wonderful person, or second that I do it to seek attention. Both are false. In the beginning I wanted to do it, because I thought it could help, to fill In with some level of work satisfaction since I could get none of that from what I actually get paid to do daily. The blog was and still is to share our experiences in the hope more people will find a way to do this on their own, provide insight to those looking in from the outside thinking they might want to be part of a team someday, and hopefully provide some smiles to others who can bear witness via the blog to the hundreds of smiles Gopher has given to me and others.

Now my motivation for going nearly every week and sometimes multiple times a week is not for those to whom Gopher will bring a moment of comfort or the pat on the back of peers, or even the wonderful things I have seen. It is purely for the therapy Gopher gives me,  an hour of being able to speak without fear, and the confidence to face and accept my failures, move on, and find my next path. Thank you Gopher, for being my companion, friend, and my ‘therapist’.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Stan never seemed overly interested.

Stan never appeared too interested in Gopher on our visits, which is not something that has ever deterred me. I can only go to the facility and do my best to make sure Gopher is well mannered and direct him during visits. That is all I am supposed to do, visiting a therapy dog is entirely by choice and no matter how great I believe Gopher is, it is not my job to force him on any person. When I say Stan never appeared too interested in Gopher you might misunderstand what I mean. In the months that I would know Stan he always came by and petted Gopher and said hello at least one time during a visit.

When I came to visit I would often see Stan early on in the visit. He would come over and say his hello’s and then be off to take part in one activity or another. I was never offended and very pleased that Stan took the time to say hello to Gopher and give him a pet. He never stuck around like some of the kids often do and sit or lay on the floor petting Gopher sometimes for the entire duration of our visit. He simply said his hello and left, always seeming to be on an itinerary, when he was feeling well.

On days when I visited and he was not feeling as well he would sit in the same room I was in with Gopher, without his customary hello and pet. His mother and I would ask if he wanted to see Gopher and he would simply shake his head no, but always looked at Gopher and gave him a weak smile.  Occasionally Stan would stop and talk with me for a few moments, never an extensive discussion, but more than sometimes being just the ‘other end of the leash’ I am used too and happy to merely facilitate Gopher and not be acknowledged. That means I am doing my job, keeping Gopher safe and allowing his visitors to have a little taste of home or a friend to talk to for a few minutes that is what I am supposed to do.

The months went by and Stan continued his routine, on good days he gave his pat said his hello, and went about his day, or on the bad days just sat in a chair and looked at Gopher. That was the extent of their relationship. Gopher always wagged as Stan approached, but he is a Golden and I have yet to see him not wag when approached by anyone who might give him a pet or a treat. The winter of Stan’s arrival faded into, spring, and then summer. Stan’s bad days became fewer and farther between so I could only presume that he was improving, or the treatments were being given at lower and lower doses.

Stan came up to Gopher at the beginning of August, but his routine had altered. He sat down, and began to stroke Gopher along his neck, back even his snout. Gopher always eager for pets did not seem to notice the change as much as I did and merely did the ‘Golden lean’ putting as much love into Stan as he was getting in pets. Stan did not say a word and the two stayed in their respective positions for fifteen minutes. Then Stan turn, sitting on his knees, and looked Gopher right in the eyes, leaned forward and gave him a hug, it was while hugging Gopher that I heard Stan speak for the first time on the visit. He said, “Goodbye Gopher, I’m all better now and get to go home on Friday. I know I won’t see you again, you made things less scary, thanks for being my friend.” Then Stan stood up told me goodbye and walked away.

I was shocked, I never thought Stan disliked Gopher, I knew he liked him, but I never thought Gopher meant that much to him. Goes to show how little I know about what Gopher and I are doing. Thank you Stan for teaching me that lesson, Gopher and I will miss seeing you

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Happy Birthday!

Gopher celebrated his third birthday this week, with a special cake made for him by his Uncle Drew and Aunt Mindy. Gluten free to avoid any allergic reactions. He is one loved and spoiled boy. Here he is enjoying his cake.

More adventures to be posted soon!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Trust The Dog

My wife and are among some of those sad people that allow our dogs in bed with us. Last night was no different; Squirrel was gathered at Carla’s feet and Gopher who typically sleeps on my feet I had pulled in close to me so that I could stroke him needing a little therapy myself. He had stretched himself along me and we were laying nose to nose sharing my pillow, and he knew I needed him to be there for comfort and did not fall asleep, but instead looked at me with those loving brown eyes.

I laid there with Gopher and dismissed my own difficulties in life soon afterward thinking about the things we have seen and lifted by the acts of kindness, generosity and tenderness he has allowed me to see on this visits. All dog owners and animal owners can attest to the comfort and well being their pet has allowed them, and I have done so as well. However as I have stated before my relationship with Gopher has always been different, yes I can glow about how he is a good boy and I am the proud father. I truly feel that he is not my dog, he belongs to a larger community, and I am privileged to be able to share his life. It surely sounds odd, but that is how I feel, I know he loves me ad shows me great loyalty and devotion, but he belongs to the community.

As I lay there looking into the depth of his eyes into a world I can only hypothesize about I thought about that and two experiences we have had, and the phrase “Trust the Dog”. This phrase is commonly uttered in advanced training and I have used it my self with my wife. As you advance this is to remind you that you have taught them the basics, and to do this you had to have constant vigilance, but now it is time to let the leash fall so to speak.

There are two cases now in therapy visits where I have failed at this in the moment, but upon reflection, knew I should have trusted him. Did he give me a look I missed or did not understand I am not sure, but I will keep looking for it as we continue this journey.

The first experience I talk about in detail and was on his first visit. There was a young girl who was nervous of the other dogs and Gopher noted this and did a cautious approach. It was an amazing experience and a great first visit and I did not know if I would ever see him duplicate. You may read more about that experience here: First Visit-A Cautious Approach

He would do something similar several weeks later. We were on our visit  in a group setting, I had been proud of his progress, and that with a small movement of an individual finger I could direct him to another child looking for pets. We arrived on this visit, signed in and went to our spot. I noted a few of our ‘regulars’ were already there waiting for us. Gopher came in and was wagging and selected to lay down first in front of a young child with whom he had visited with several times. He laughed and pet Gopher, after a few minutes I attempted to direct Gopher to some of the other kids so they could get some time with him and he refused. Oh my, Gopher what had I done, were you mad at me because we had not gone out to play chuck it as much recently and throwing a tantrum? Was this a day where my commands were not going to work? He was not doing anything wrong or harmful he was just laying there with the child and refused to move on to the next as he had done so many times before. Eventually we would have the other children gather around him and he was fine with this, but kept his focus centered on the child he had chosen first. He did not get up, stir, for the entire hour. Truly remarkable for a high energy dog whom I had not had the chance to exercise that day. He stayed there and was reluctant to leave at the appointed time. The child did not pet him the whole time, and sometimes merely rested his hand on Gophers chest. I still remember it and have always found it amazing to see how gentle he is and how small those hands look on his chest.

A week had transpired and it was time for us to return to the facility, and this time I made sure we had some more play time so we would not have a repeat performance of the preceding visit. We checked in and sat down in the appointed area, and once again a few of the ‘regulars’ were there. The child who Gopher had lavished with attention the preceding week was absent. I thought nothing of this as patients come and go all the time. A little ways into our visit the parents noted that Gopher was more attentive to all children this week than last, and my cheeks flushed with embarrassment. Then they said something odd, “I wonder if he knew?” This caught my attention, but it is not appropriate for the handler to probe and ask questions in this sensitive environment. So I kept my lips shut and did not ask the burning question, “Wonder if he knew what?” It did not take long for one of the parents who I have gotten to know somewhat over our visits to tell me, that the child who Gopher lavished so much attention on the previous week had passed away.

I couldn’t say anything besides I am ‘sorry to hear that’, as my mind was instantly flooded with emotions I did not understand. I had experienced a death before in this work and reported on it earlier, but again so soon hit me hard. We left that visit and I started to pontificate on what I had learned and Gopher’s behavior. Had he known that child was about to leave this world? Was that why he refused to move? How did he know, do we release a scent close to death that a canine nose can detect? Why was he not afraid if he had known? I had heard cases in hospice settings where a dog refused to enter a patients room they had been before in the final hours of life? I had also heard of the infamous “Death Cat” who is antisocial, but will lavish attention on those about to die, and has never been wrong, so now the facility contacts the family when they see the cat get up on a patient. Was he actually only angry with me and did not want to work for me? Questions that can only be a discussion as I am not sure I will ever know what happened that day. I do know that he provided comfort to a child who was in their last hours of life. I also learned that as competent as I feel I am at times I need to learn to ‘Trust the Dog’.

Have you experienced something like this? Please leave a comment and tell Gopher, Carla and I about it.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Gopher Goes To College

            It was Mom’s turn this time!  Gopher and I went on our first solo Therapy.  I have had the opportunity to watch Gopher work at various facilities with Chad as the handler and witnessed a lot of the stories that you read about in this blog but this was our first time by ourselves.  Chad and I train as a team so I was very involved in getting Gopher to the place he is now and I have enjoyed every minute of it, the frustrating and the rewarding.  It’s all an adventure and we do ours as a family. 
            You have probably read in various newspapers, how colleges, high schools, and grade schools are using therapy animals to relieve stress in the classroom.  I have not read up on any of the hard scientific research that proves or disproves this theory but by what I have seen it will at the very least put a smile on a face or two and everyone seems to truly appreciate the animal’s presence.  Our visit was to a local college library during finals week.  Which as a college graduate, I can attest at how stressful this part of my life could be.  We stood at the entrance to the library behind a make shift barrier and let those that chose to interact with the animals the opportunity to do so.  The barrier is simply there to protect those who don’t feel comfortable around dogs and we always try our best to be respectful of this.  The visit was pretty low key but we had quite a few visitors stop by to visit us and the other dogs that were available for petting.  One of my favorites was a young gentleman that was obviously in a hurry, stop in his tracks, turn and point right at Gopher.  He said “I want to pet that one”.  He stopped for a few minutes and gave Gopher some love and then was on his way.  Another older student came down the hall and looked like she was about in tears.  Her fist words were “I need therapy”.  She had seen a posting about us being there and had hurried over after she took her final which she was sure she had failed.  There were no favorites for her, she pet each one of them for a long time. 
            Gopher performed for me like a dream.  He makes it look easy but I know the journey we took with him.  From shark puppy to hard nosed adolescent to one of the best therapy dogs I have ever seen.  I swear I’m not biased!:)  I honestly don’t take much credit for it cause if he didn’t have the drive and the instinct to do the work the best trainers in the world couldn’t have gotten him there.  He loves what he does and so do we.  We plan on posting our stories here for a very long time!   

Friday, July 1, 2011

Gopher is in the Press!

Well he is in the limited press that is. The Bi-annual newsletter, Interactions, written and distributed by the Delta Society came out this week and an article about Gopher appears on page 20. For those who have read this full blog you will recognize this story. To see the article go to the link below.

Gopher on Page 20 of 'Interactions"!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Summer is here in Minnesota

Gopher and I wanted to take a moment to remind people of some basic canine safety for the heat of summer.

-Your dog needs to acclimate to the heat as well, take time when exercising, take a lot of break, and have plenty of water.

-Never leave your dog unattended in a vehicle, not only dangerous and harmful, but also illegal in many states.

-When hot cool your dog by using a cool towel on the inner thighs, just like humans, don't give an extremely cold item when the core temperature is high, also don't feed immediately following exercise allow their internal temperature to come down.

-Just like with kids, when a dog is swimming they should not be left unattended.

Thanks From Gopher!! Don't forget to stay cool,  Gopher likes to stay cool by singing to sirens.

And bobbing for ice cubes to beat the summer heat.

The Summer preview, more stories from working with kids, and coming soon "Final Visits: Hospice Care".

Have a great summer!!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Video: Sent By A Fan

Good Afternoon,

This Video was sent in by a fan of Gophers' Shows the benefits of therapy animals and some of the reactions I get to see on every visit.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Back to the Beginning: How Gopher Came Into Our Lives?

The two things that can be said about my wife, Carla, and I is that we love animals and we have an innate sense that we need to help our fellow human. Carla and I were college sweethearts meeting early in our freshman year at the University of Minnesota. We were best friends from the beginning and even now after over seven years of marriage, and over 11 years of being together I still can’t imagine a better day than one spent with her. We have had our tumultuous times. Difficulties in college, financially and two layoffs, but no matter what we stick together and always seem to make it through.

In 2008 after being together for all of our adult lives Carla and I knew we wanted one thing, a dog. Not just any dog, but a Golden Retriever and we would name him Gopher. We had been living in a rental house for a number of years and despite having a good relationship with the land lord he would not budge and let us get a dog. The economy of the United States was and still is difficult and full of uncertainty, but we decided to see if we could get a house. Not because it made financial sense, or that we knew we would be remaining in Minnesota for the rest of our lives, but because we wanted a dog. So we set out to do just that and were surprisingly approved and began the house hunting. Over a couple of months we saw a number of homes particularly in Saint Paul and the surrounding communities, we saw and looked at just as many websites for Golden Retrievers.

We knew we wanted a Golden Retriever as it had long been a desire of mine to work with a Therapy Animal and hopefully bring a few moments of laughter and peace to those in difficult or troubling situations. I had read and witnessed their effect on the people they visited. We decided on a Golden Retriever as we wanted to stack the deck in our favor and knew that this was an “eager to please breed”. Our intention at the time was start off with a Golden but maybe a different breed in the future, after having a Golden we now know in our home there will be no other breed. We also wanted to go through a reputable breeder. Being novice trainers we wanted to have a better idea of how the dog might act as an adult and raise it up from a puppy so we would have a better idea of how it would respond since we had known the animal most of it’s life. 

The house search droned on, and we settled on a few top contenders and called in the support of our families for their insight and know how before settling on any one house. The house we finally ended up purchasing was never the top of the list, but it always fit. Our parents approved of the little house knowing the neighborhood would hold its value better than some of the other homes. We made the offer and it was approved, before the date was finalized we had also chosen our breeder and made a deposit on the pup. The time for the pup to be picked up and the close date on the house were only a week and a half apart. When a hiccup in the closing process caused a delay we became very concerned as we did not want to forfeit our deposit and we wanted our dog. We had even purchased all of his immediate needs, found a veterinarian and where we would attend training classes.

The sale of the house went through the Monday after it was supposed to and we moved into our first home. We have always been quick to setup our living spaces as neither of us could feel truly comfortable and at home until family photos were on the wall and boxes did not fill living spaces. We also had more inspiration as our new pup would need a home box free so he would not hurt himself and so he could learn what it was like to live in a home. We set up our home and anxiously waited for the day to arrive.

My parents were going to come up from Iowa the Friday night before we would go and meet our new pup on Saturday morning. They had originally planned on coming up to help us move but due to the closing hiccup we asked them if they wanted to come and help us settle in, clean the rental house and meet their new grand son. Working in Des Moines and having a four hour drive to Saint Paul caused them to arrive very late, and to top off what had been a couple of weeks of poor timing my father went off without his medication so we found ourselves at a 24 hour Walgreens at one am a mere 4 hours before we were due to leave on another four hour drive north to near where the Mississippi river begins to get our new pup.

Carla and I had arranged everything. We made thermoses of Hot Chocolate and Coffee for the early drive. Picked up bagels and made breakfast sandwiches and packed chips and sandwiches for a picnic we would have on the way home. I had printed off a list of radio stations that would play the football game, Gophers versus Ohio State in Columbus, as Carla and I were die hard fans of our alma mater and my parents who don’t care for football agreed to let us listen to the game.

So on a typical crisp September morning in Minnesota we loaded the car and were off at 5 am in the dark to meet our pup born just a few weeks before on August 7th. The drive was long and tiresome as none of us had really slept either due to late arrivals and early morning pharmacy trips or for Carla and I we were restless with anticipation. The sun was still low in the sky when we made the final turn on the dirt road that would take us to the breeder’s home. He had a beautiful place in northern Minnesota a spot that was half prairie and half Northern Pine Forest.

Our breeder, Brad, is a very nice older man, a retired school teacher with a lot of love for Golden Retrievers. He stood very tall, but you could see this man had a heart not unlike a Golden Retriever full of love and compassion. We spoke with him for a few moments and he advised us again that we would have a choice of two remaining males. He showed us the bitch and the sire, and then released the litter from their confinement so we could make our choice. If you only can do one thing in your life and even have a minor inclination towards dogs nothing in this world could be better than watching seven Golden Retriever puppies come running at you in a herd of fluffy squishiness. 

Brad pointed out our two choices a purple collared pup that was a deeper red and had a thinner coat and a green collared guy that was blonder and fluffier. Carla picked up the blond fluffy one first and I picked up the guy with the purple collar. There was something about him and I already had an inclination towards him, but I didn’t say anything to Carla as I did not want to influence her decision. She was leaning toward the blonde fluff ball but as we traded the puppies back and forth she also said “How do we choose, I can’t decide.” Brad suggested we set the pups down and let them play with their litter mates while we took time to discuss. So we set them down, and the blonde fluff ball tore off to go rummage in the garden with his littermates. The redder one with the purple collar started to follow suit and then after going five feet from us did a 180 and returned to my side in a perfect heel, and looked up at me as if to say, “Well we going or what?” That purple collar was to be our Gopher and he had made up our minds for us. We knew many things, that we would love him, care for him, spoil him and keep him safe. We also knew we would do our best to make him into a Therapy Dog. What we didn’t know was that this little 7.5 lb ball of fur and energy would have an innate sense to be a therapy animal, that he would take us to a level of compassion and empathy that we could not even imagine then, and that he would provide us with insight into ourselves and the persons we didn’t even know we wanted to be.

Friday, May 13, 2011

A Place to Belong


Names and other personal information from a Therapy Visit cannot be shared.

Chad Burgess, Carla Donovan-Burgess and Gopher are volunteers and do not officially represent any institution mentioned in these visits.

 The experiences, conversations are true and really took place the names of persons, if given have only been changed to protect the confidentiality of those we visit.

You know that feeling you get after going someplace new for a while, whether it is work for school and you’re not sure when it happened, but you suddenly realize you belong there. Gopher and I have that feeling now at one of our facilities, not sure when it happened, but now we both feel like we belong there. Gopher directs me down the hall to sign in and back to our room where the visits take place with no direction from me.

Another thing that I am pleased to report is his presence has matured in the therapy setting. He now stays acutely
focused on me and waits more patiently for my direction. With the slightest flick of my finger I am able to tell him to go and say hi to someone. He will sometimes look at me while doing this and I will say, “Its okay, say hello” then he will turn his head and give the visitor the full attention of his precious brown eyes.

In the time we have had to take in adjusting to our role in this facility, we also were able to watch a little girl take the time to get adjusted to us. Dualla is only three years old and has Downs Syndrome, as with many children born with Downs she has had to have multiple surgeries to repair other birth defects. Gopher and I have seen Dualla at nearly every single visit we have had over the past three months. She always smiles at me and Gopher and blows kisses to Gopher on her own and when asked to do so by her Mom. Both Mom and I always ask Dualla every time and sometimes multiple times in a single visit if she would like to see Gopher. She always answers us with a very emphatic shaking her head no.

Dualla still always insisted on seeing Gopher, but only from afar. She would refuse to visit with him directly any time either of us asked, but she would always blow him kisses and get excited to see him. Then after nearly 8 weeks of solid visits something else had changed. I met Dualla as soon as I walked in, and she was so excited, a little more than normal to see Gopher. I said Hi to Dualla and her mother and told them I would be in the room in a moment, after I had signed in for the day.

When Gopher and I returned to the room, Dualla and her mother and father were waiting. She nearly jumped out of her chair and we didn’t even have to ask if she wanted to see Gopher as she crawled over to him. After 8 weeks of not wanting him to be too close, Dualla would spend the next forty-five minutes, loving him and playing with him on the floor. She zoomed up to Gopher and immediately hugged him and gave him kisses. She examined his ears, his face and the rest of this body while leaning against him as if he was a special living cushion just for her.  Mom, Dad and I couldn’t believe what we saw, and spent the time talking about the sudden change and laughing with Dualla as she played with Gopher on the floor. I guess Gopher and I have found a place we truly belong, now that Dualla has fully accepted us.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

How does this work?

Gopher and I have been continuing weekly visits to one facility. We have a wonderful time and it is almost indescribable the happiness these visits bring us. What is also equally indescribable were the feelings that came upon myself at our last visit.

Gopher had the pleasure of one little boy who had visited him a few times over many weeks. He appeared to really like him that there was a special connection that Gopher had with him not unlike his excitement he has for his Uncle Duck or Aunt Emily. He is a typical Golden who seems to love everyone he meets, but as his handler I can easily see without being anthropomorphic certain special people who bring out something more in his excitement. This was his relationship with this boy.

Now, being in my position I do not have the luxury to ask questions pertaining to the health of any one we may visit, or where they have gone if I don't see them. So when this little boy stopped coming, I presumed he was either getting more treatment or home for some much deserved rest. Then I heard the news and I was awestruck to discover he had lost his fight. He appeared to be doing very well, and honestly it would take a very discerning eye to know he wasn't a typical healthy kid.

Now I have to ask myself how does this work? I did not really know him, but I feel a sense of loss, but not enough to really grieve. When I help Gopher get ready for another visit his image pops into my head. When I can't sleep at night (for other stresses in my life) my mind will wander to him. I have been in a position due to my parents family business that I have seen loss on many occasions, some people I knew well, others only by name and face, but their deaths rather young or older did not leave me with this lasting impression.

There is not a moment when I feel like stopping or not doing this throwing away all we have worked for, but I am left to wonder how long will this last? Will he stick with me for the rest of the time I do this with Gopher? Will it just fade? So does anyone know, how does this work?

Monday, April 4, 2011

The 'Tail' of Steve


Names/conditions and other personal information from a Therapy Visit cannot be shared.

Chad Burgess, Carla Donovan-Burgess and Gopher are volunteers and do not officially represent any institution mentioned in these visits.

 The experiences, conversations are true and really took place the names of persons, if given have only been changed to protect the privacy of those we visit.

Carla and I were both warned that at some point in our therapy visits there would be one patient that would really touch us. This is not to say we aren’t touched by all the people we visit, it is that at least one would cause you to look past your objectivity, get close to your dog, and make you stay longer than scheduled. The time has come and for the purpose of this story we will call him Steve.

Steve is a shy little boy who is extremely ill. He is undergoing a dangerous treatment to help him fight a disease that could take this life before he gets the chance to grow up. Steve is only seven and is a typical little boy at first appearance. He is terribly shy and when he talks with you it he never looks at you, always down or through his mother. When I wrote this I had three wonderful opportunities to learn about Steve.

Gopher and I arrived and we took our typical place by the fireplace in the little room where our visits are held. There was a mother and a little boy that were already there waiting for us. This was Steve and I couldn’t help but notice that he smiled at Gopher as soon as we walked into the room. In the therapy setting with a dog it is the opposite as in the public, when walking down the street you should always ask for permission to pet a dog. In the therapy setting you ask the person if they want to say hi and do not approach until there is an affirmation. Steve looked for a moment over his portable video game device then quickly turned to look at his mom who told him it was okay. Instead of getting up and coming over he seemed in sink deeper into the chair, covering his face leaving only narrow slits of his eyes looking over his gaming device. I could not help but smile when I noted the power light indicator was not black and not the glowing crimson or jade when this device was in operation. I looked down at Gopher smiling and gave him a pet. Steve stayed put in his chair.

After a few minutes a few more kids started to arrive and began visiting with Gopher. I couldn’t help but notice the gaming device had slumped away from Steve’s face and he watched closely how the kids were interacting with Gopher and how I was interacting with them. I am not quite sure when or how it came about but without me noticing Steve had moved from his chair and was thoroughly petting Gopher and Gopher focused his soft loving brown eyes directly on Steve and somewhat embarrassingly did not acknowledge the other kids as much. I don’t know if I can ever knowingly explain why he did that, Steve was not stroking a particular spot that Gopher desires he was softly patting his chest something done 100’s of times a day and a move that has never drawn his focus so intently. Did Gopher know Steve needed him ‘more’ than the other kids at that moment? Did he know they were beginning to form a friendship? I don’t think any of us will ever know, but there he was a dog who instinctually will avoid direct eye contact was taking those deep chestnut brown eyes that seem to have wisdom beyond my understanding were staring directly into Steve’s eyes.

The other kids many of them had seen and played with Gopher before excitedly ran off to join in the arts and craft activity happening in the room adjacent to us. This left Steve alone with Gopher. I spoke with Steve a few times, and he would respond, but always kept looking at Gopher. Gopher decided to settle in and lay down on his side to take in the full massage given by Steve. This would continue for nearly thirty minutes when Steve suddenly got up. Gopher raised his head at the loss of his masseur. Steve went over to the chair and picked up his gaming device cam back over and lay down on the floor resting his head on Gopher’s chest and shoulder. I learned as this moment that only the day before Steve had undergone a long and exhausting treatment. His mother asked him if he needed to go upstairs and go to bed, Steve looked at his mother and in a loud affirmative tone said “NO MOM!” His mother had told him how happy this time was making her that due to his illness and his innate shyness he was not engaging with anyone or any thing. I looked back to Gopher and Steve during this discussion and discovered that Steve had turned the gaming device on this time and the glow of the screen illuminating his and Gophers face who had draped his neck over Steve’s shoulder and rested his head on Steve’s chest. I was startled at first and exchanged looks with Steve’s mom to see if this was okay or if I needed to move Gopher. She shook her head no with tears in her eyes watching her son interact with another living being for the first time in months.

Amazed by this I watched as Steve continued to play his game and noticed that he was talking the entire time. Gopher also did not go to sleep or close this eyes he just kept his eyes open looking at the gaming screen and Steve through the corners of his eyes, moving those Golden eyebrows back and forth with his eyes. The time came for Gopher and I to leave came too quickly, and I ignored the clock fifteen more minutes passed this way, when Steve’s mom asked me if I wasn’t supposed to leave. I acknowledged that I was, and Steve sat straight up and turned to Gopher. He looked right into his face and said “I don’t want you to leave Gopher.” I told him I was sorry but it was time for Gopher to go home and get his dinner, Steve kept looking at Gopher and asked “Gopher, can you come back, when will you be back?” I told him we would be back in just a few days as we were visiting the facility twice that week. Gopher had moved into a sit and place one paw on Steve’s arm not breaking the gaze. Steve then said “I will see you when you come back.” putting both arms around Gopher Steve gave him a hug., and Gopher reciprocated by resting his head on Steve’s back. Steve’s mom thanked me for my visit and bringing Gopher and I told her not hanks needed it is always a pleasure to come here. I grabbed Gopher’s pack and quickly and headed out the door before anyone could notice the tears I had in my eyes.

I loaded Gopher in the car and after I regained my composure called Carla and my father immediately to tell them the story. I added that if Gopher decided that this was it and he didn’t want to do therapy work anymore that I could retire him that night and still feel that all the work, time and money spent was well worth it. I am pleased to say that Gopher is not interested in retirement yet.

The time had arrived for Gopher and I to return and he began to whimper in excitement as soon as we turned the corner to approach the facility. We came in and logged in at the office passing the fireplace room on the way. I was disappointed to see that Steve and his mom were not waiting for us. We logged in and went to the fireplace room and took our typical positions. Kids and families started arriving and playing with and petting Gopher, before I knew it nearly twenty minutes had passed and I was concerned we had not seen Steve, when his mother arrived carrying a milk bone. She came right over to me giving Gopher a pat on the head.

“Steve isn’t feeling well today.” she reported to me.

“Sorry to hear that” was my response, keeping a close eye on the crowd of kids that were now surrounding Gopher.

“He has not stopped talking about Gopher since your last visit. He has created all these stories of things they were going to do today. Then last night he started feeling really bad, a side effect of his treatment. He told me this morning that he had to feel better soon ‘cause Gopher was coming to see him. When the time came for your visit he was upset and said he didn’t think he could go, he asked me to bring down this treat and give it to Gopher and tell him he was sorry. May I give him the treat?”

“Sure Gopher can have the treat, tell Steve thank you and that Gopher loves treats, and hopes he can see him next time.”

She knelt down gave Gopher the treat and a hug as well and whispered a “Thank you” into his ear and left.

Gopher and I continued the visit and when it was time to leave we left, no less emotional than the last visit. This is truly why I chose to do therapy work, there is no pay it takes time out of your day, but rewards like this make all the difference.

Gopher and I would return again and this time Steve was waiting for us. Gopher and him played and interacted the entire time. At one point Gopher laid on his side while Steve and another little boy played with Dinosaur toys on his side, becoming his own Jurassic Park. When the time came for us to leave came Steve gave him another hug and told Gopher he would see him next time.

Now I am torn, I cannot wait to return to see Steve and Gopher interact again it is one of the greatest moments I have had the opportunity to witness. Equally though I will be happy for the day when Steve can go home recovered and get to be a child, perhaps even getting his own Golden Retriever to play with, since he asked shortly before we left on our last visits. “Mom, I know I can’t have Gopher, but when I am better can I get a dog just like him?” 

Thank you Steve for letting Gopher and I come see you and be a part of your life. I hope to see you again but more than that I hope to hear you have gone home and are awaiting the arrival of your own Golden.