I was fortunate growing up in many ways, one of those being that I had five surviving, relatively healthy, independent grandparents, both maternal and paternal grandparents and my maternal great-grandmother. This would begin to change over Mother’s Day weekend 1999, the year I graduated high school. My maternal grandmother suffered her first stroke, and over the course of the next 12 years we would bury my great-grandmother, my paternal grandparents, and my maternal grandmother would suffer a second stroke which she would not recover from as well as she did the first.
My maternal grandmother has limited communication, and is unable to do most things unassisted; she still lives at home under the care of my aging grandfather with the help of my uncle. My grandparents are not dog people, and in previous times together Gopher had disregarded them and spent time with the rest of the family. The holiday season of 2011 was a little different.
Before we dive to deep into this there is something you should know about Gopher, that he is extremely sensitive almost too sensitive at times. He does something we don't approve like bark at a passerby he will immediately put himself in a timeout which is the staircase to our bedroom. We have never 'punished' him in this way or really anyway, it is just something he does. He is so sensitive about wrong doing that he will do this when his little brother or foster brother are doing something they are not supposed to be doing he will put himself in a time out. Often times Gopher will give them away when he gets up and goes to his 'time out' place, we know someone is being naughty. I do appreciate how obedient and caring Gopher can be but I also get concerned about this sensitivity.
When my grandparents arrived we had attempted to tire the boys out with some vigorous exercise to avoid any potential issues. After a little excitement at the new arrivals the boys quickly settled down and my grandparents settled in to chairs in the family room of my parents. We all talked and visited for a little bit, then we took the boys out to play some more.
While my parents were preparing the meal for everyone, Gopher walked up to my grandmother sat on her left side and placed his head on the arm rest, and looked up at her. Gopher knew he needed to approach her carefully and respectfully which I expect given his age, training and maturity. One element I did not expect was that he intuitively went to her left side. Her right side is inhibited and suffers paralysis as a result of the two strokes. Many times in our settings I have had to direct him to the appropriate side of a patient. This time he did it on his own despite that when I sit in a recliner he will place himself on my right side. My grandmother went to pat him on the head and smiled at him, it was a lovely moment. It was then broken up by my grandfather, and I cannot blame him either. He has been her primary caretaker for many years, and although an animal lover, is not a dog person, he also does not fully understand what Gopher does week in and week out. I wish I could have explained it all to him, but it was too late, and after the interruption of the moment, my grandmother did not care to have the dogs there as well.
So Gopher retreated, but tested the waters many times only to be turned away by my grandfather, uncle or by me to keep things as positive as possible. We also began playing more frequently as a result of this interaction, as it had two surprises, the first being his intuition on placing himself on his own accord on her left side, the other was the pouting self punishment of time outs that happened after the interaction. Although I feel strongly that the benefits of having Gopher being petted by my grandmother would have been great, it cannot work, and should not be done if the person is not receptive. I equally hated and enjoyed seeing how much it upset Gopher to not be able to do his work. By retreating the way he did, and his self punishment I knew my boy felt like he did something wrong, I diverted this by rewarding him with chuck-it, his continued nervousness, and desire to approach, and watching my grandmother carefully was not a fear of her or her awkward stagger, knowing him as I have as his partner in this work I could tell he wanted to help.
In the last year he has been asked and responded very well to being with and near people who are ill, sometimes suffering in ways that make them look very different from the average person. He has exhibited not only a desire, but a knowledge of knowing what a person might need beyond my own understanding, and impossible for one to train. He saw my grandmother as one of these people, and when he couldn't work, it bothered him. I hated to see him hurt, but am thankful and amazed that he not only had the knowledge but the desire. This desire combined with patients who are receptive, interested which are the majority we encounter will ensure many years of service for Gopher. You can just see how much he loves to work, his maturity, and awareness outside of what he was trained is astonishing. I am not a person who believes in fate, but going back to how he acted on our first day, Back to the Beginning , and how he has come about as a Therapy Dog does give one pause.