Follow by Email

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Gopher Therapy Dog to More than Just Humans: The Story of Squirrel and Graham and Me

Not very long after getting Gopher we started volunteering for a local rescue as a foster home for Golden Retrievers and mixes. Gopher being a young pup was eager to love each one of them, but confused when they left. His favorite foster, fast friend and closest companion was Ramsey (The Story of Ramsey). After Ramsey was Barney (The Story of Barney). As a result of his love of Ramsey and his depression when he left we decided it was time to have another permanent resident and arranged for Squirrel. In the meantime we filled our home with a new foster Barney, and although he was lovable in his own way, Barney needed help, which we gave him. Gopher still mourning the absence of Ramsey was excited by the new companion, but became jaded quickly when Barney reacted to him in a negative way. Since that time Gopher, has always been more aloof to new dogs and slow to become companions with them, including Squirrel his little ‘brother’ who would be arriving in a few months.

Gopher bonded with Barney, and eventually Graham, and other new dogs, but not as much as he did in the time before Ramsey and with Ramsey.  Squirrel being a young pup, loved the peculiar antics of Barney, and did as much to help him in overcoming issues as Gopher, Carla and I. Once Barney had settled into a wonderful and loving forever home we intended to take a break, but quickly changed our minds and took on a litter of puppies so that they could remain with their litter mates until old enough to be placed in individual homes. We did not intend to foster any of the pups for the long term as we were still exhausted from and in the middle of all the training Squirrel needed in his first year of life. Once they were all handed out to other loving foster homes we once again intended to take a break, and we did, but not for as long as intended.
Graham was introduced on the plea as an 11 year old pure bred Golden Retriever. He was said to be gentle, loving, and well-mannered. He was also diagnosed with chronic kidney failure. We said yes knowing that he might not get adopted and might not even be with us long. The original prognosis was grim and 6 months was considered optimistic. He would go on to live with us for 15 months, until last night when we were in the position to do the last humane act and help him die. There are many tales I can tell you about his time with us, and who he was, but the purpose of this blog is about Gopher and his therapy work. Gopher and Graham were friends, but not like Squirrel and Graham who loved nothing more than playing with one another, especially in the morning while we were getting ready for our days. They were buds, the old man and the young pup, frequently found cuddling one another. In  the last week of Graham’s life Gopher started doing his thing and giving therapy not to Graham, but to his little brother Squirrel, and eventually once again to me his most consistent patient.

Graham’s decline could be represented graphically as an exponential regression. After over a year of no change to even some improvement in blood values, he deteriorated quickly.  During the year leading up to this with little to no interest of applicants wanting to adopt Graham we settled into a routine of a three dog house. Gopher playing sometimes, never really initiating, but rather being prodded into it, but his little brother, Graham being a happy content, albeit stubborn old man watching and many times joining in to the play. Graham and Squirrel cuddling and playing with each other without Gopher quite often, they became the best of pals.

Then last week, Grahams decline became obvious, that is when Gopher stepped in to do a little therapy for his little brother.  Gopher, who rarely initiated play, became incessant wanting trying to get Squirrel to play constantly. He became more insistent whenever Squirrel attempted to initiate play with Graham. Gopher seemed to know that Graham could no longer play and that his little brother was losing his best pal and needed him.

This last week, Carla and I cleared our calendars in order to be near Graham if he needed us. We were not overly active since Graham could not be, both Squirrel and Gopher were growing restless, but Gopher did his best to keep Squirrel engaged with him and not focused on Graham. Our somber week was lightened by the time we got to spend with Graham and the antics Gopher was doing to keep little brother distracted.
On the last day of his life, Graham indicated to us that it was time, his personality had faded and despite the aid of medication, he was not interested in food. Thankfully he was not experiencing any pain. The change was obvious, but Carla and I hadn’t talked about it yet. Then right before we were to leave for the day, Squirrel stopped in the middle of the floor looked to Graham, and back up at Carla, his eyes, his demeanor appeared as if he was pleading with Carla to fix Graham. What Carla did not notice was Gopher, standing a little farther away, toy in mouth taunting Squirrel. The distraction was not enough this time though no matter how much Gopher tried.

We discussed it on our drive, and decided it was time. When we came home Gopher was still initiating play as much as possible as we let them outside, and then loaded them all into the car.  The trip seemed extra-long coupled by traffic and dread. We pulled in and unloaded Gopher and Squirrel, who would get a private room, while Carla and I sat with Graham for the procedure. Graham being a golden went in, noticeably weak, but still wagging at the excitement of seeing strangers. The looks on our faces made it obvious what we were there for, and the looks of compassion from strangers were a bit too much. Graham went in laid down comfortably and was fully relaxed, in a matter of moments that seemed all too short he was gone.

The drive home wasn’t much better, and the absence of Graham overbearing. As soon as we got home, Gopher was at it again, initiating play with his little brother. Throughout the night Gopher would take turns playing with Squirrel, resting and loving up two friends who came to toast and remember Graham. The entire time he kept an eye on his little brother. After several stories had been told our friends left and it was time for bed. Gopher and Squirrel clambered in taking their usual spots, I went to pull Gopher in closer, he resisted, settled in for a while then left. As the house quieted and Carla and I settled in a bit more, I pulled him up near me again, this time he settled in, this time he knew it was I who needed him. I fell asleep cuddled into him, tears being taken up by his coat.

Today, marks the first day of healing, the mood in our home is somber. We will move on, though it is still raw right now. Either way in this last week Gopher once again amazes me in his empathy, and instinct. He took it upon himself to initiate play with Squirrel, to provide that distraction and comfort. I am sure in the coming weeks we will settle into a new routine, without Graham. How long Gopher will help his little brother mourn for his friend I do not know.  I am just thankful that Squirrel has Gopher to help him through this transition, and only wish I could turn back the clock and be able to help the young Gopher when his friend Ramsey went to his adoptive family.


  1. What a difficult decision, but it was such a wonderful experience for Graham to share his last year with you and your family. Thinking of you today.

    1. Thank you. Thursday was hard. We 'ran' the 'racetrack' for him and discussed where we will place his urn. It helped bring some closure.