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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

When a Visit Goes Bad

Sometimes, despite all your preparation a visit can go bad. This could be a result of an action your partner takes, an off day or in the case of Gopher and I a child throwing a toy at him.

It was a beautiful day outside and a weekend given it was a group visit setting I was expecting a quiet day, but still wanted to keep our scheduled visit in case someone needed a little Gopher time. We arrived at the facility and were surprised to find a lack of adult presence, there were two kids running around and having a good time. They were not doing anything particularly wrong, just being a bit overly exuberant.

We went and signed in, and retired to the room where our visits take place. The two kids came by, quickly petted Gopher and then returned to their play time activities. When visiting the handler portion of the therapy dog teams first and foremost responsibility is to keep your partner safe.

As the kids played, they began to run through the room, and that was fine, Gopher is used to this at the facility. However they then decided it was time to take turns running up to Gopher and screaming in his face. I was taken aback by this, but Gopher maintained his composure and training and merely looked at me. When they returned to do it again, I stopped them immediately.

"Stop, it is not nice to scream in anyone's face, Gopher is here to visit you and if you want to visit with him nicely you are welcome to do so, but do not scream at him." I told them in a controlled, but stern voice.

They walked away obviously annoyed at the adult who spoiled their fun. They began playing again in the next room. As the time passed it became obvious that they were to be our only visitors. We were determined to spend the hour in the event there was a family in need of the visit, then it of the children came flying through the room and I am still not sure if it was by accident or with intent threw a toy at Gopher. He let out a light whimper.

I jump to my feet.

"STOP. You do not throw a toy or anything at my partner. He is here to comfort people, and you hurt him, did you hear him whimper? You need to leave this area now. Throwing something like that at any dog is wrong, throwing things at a therapy dog will make them not want to work anymore, you could ruin them for everyone else."

Admittedly, I was much more stern, but still composed when I reprimanded the child. I reported the incident to the manager on site and let them know I was leaving to remove Gopher from the situation.

The facility contacted me multiple times expressing their apologies, I told them it was handled and I merely needed to remove Gopher that day so that any negative feelings toward the area did not effect his future performance. I did see the child a few more times, each time giving Gopher, myself and the other therapy teams a wide berth. I do not regret my actions and need to remove Gopher as I always need to be his advocate. my only wish is that the child's parent would have been present to prevent it from happening in the first place, or to help the child understand his actions were wrong, but he could still visit if he wanted, but with respect.

Oh well it was a bad day. Gopher and I went for a drive, a little chuck it to get the negativity out of his mind and did the only thing you can do with a bad day. Slept it off......

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Personal information obtained on therapy visits is confidential. When applicable the name/location/sex/condition of persons visited may be changed to protect privacy. However, the interactions, conversations are true and did occur as written. 

Gopher, Chad,  Squirrel and Carla are all volunteers. They do not officially represent any institution that may be mentioned.

If you read the schedule today's article was going to be about a negative experience and how Gopher and I handled the situation. It will still happen as the hope is to be informative for those seeking to do the same work. However I had an experience yesterday that I felt needed to be shared given that Henrietta passed away peacefully this morning.

Gopher and I were out visiting many of our patients on Monday. The end of the day had come and he had been working for over 4 hours when I called to make my reports of the days activities.

We went through the list and let them know about the day. Two of the patients I would no longer be visiting. One had declined pet therapy, and the other needed another type of volunteer and not a pet therapy team. The conversation ended, and then came the request, "Chad, I hate to add another patient as you have so many right, now, but would you mind filling one more request?" I looked over at Gopher, he had perked up in the back seat, moved his ears towards me, and had a big golden smile on his face. "Sure, I think Gopher is still ready to go, we can do our initial visit today." The volunteer coordinator was pleased by this and dispensed the information.

The room was hot when we arrived, and the Henrietta's daughter was there sitting with her mother. It was obvious that there was not much time left. Henrietta was non-responsive and per her daughter and nurse had not been responsive for a few days. 

Her respiration's were heavy and her eyes were mostly closed but what you could see of her eyes showed me that my presence did not register. 

"Henrietta, my name is Chad and I am from the hospice service. I have Gopher with me and he is a therapy dog that wanted to see you today. I am going to put him in a chair next to your bed."

I gestured to Gopher to get up in the chair, and he did so, turned sat and leaned towards the bedside of the chair.

"She loves dogs and all animals, when I put in the request she was more alert, I don't think she will respond, but thank you so much for coming and trying" the daughter said to me.

I gestured towards Henrietta's hand and her daughter gave me an affirmative nod.

"Henrietta, I am going to take your hand and place it on Gopher's head, he wanted to see you and your daughter told me you love animals and I would like to help you feel his fur."

I took her hand and placed it on his head. Almost immediately her respiration slowed, and became more relaxed. 

"Henrietta, your hand is on his head, he is a Golden Retriever and his fur is dark red, doesn't he feel soft?"

Then I felt as her fingers began to flex and move in a scratching motion a nearly innate response of a person who has known the pleasure of petting a loving dog their whole lives. Her drooped mouth curved into a smile, but her eyes were still non-responsive. It was a magical moment that lasted only a couple of minutes.

Once her fingers stopped scratching I moved her hand back next to her.

"Thank you for the pets Henrietta, you really made Gopher's tail wag, he really liked them. Thank you for letting us visit you today, we will leave now, but will return when we can."

I turned to find tears in her daughters eyes, "Thank you so much, she said to me, Mom has not been her for days, thank you for letting me see my mom again for a little bit." She leans over and pets Gopher, "Thank you Gopher, you are truly a special dog." We told her we could come back, and thanked her for letting us visit today.

We would not be given the opportunity, the body that had failed Henrietta let her go this morning, and she is at peace. The nurse who reported her death to me this morning, thanked me again, and told me that she was there with her daughter when she passed away. The daughter had told her about the experience with Gopher. Told the nurse how thankful she was, her mom had not responded to her voice or touch for days. She appeared to be struggling and her breathing had begun to bother her. She did not respond again after Gopher left, her scratching was the last sign that her mom was still in there that she saw. She was also thankful that the more relaxed respiration during Gopher's visit continued until her final moments. Although she did not rest for the night wanting to make sure her mom knew she was there and it was okay to go, she was comforted by Gopher's visit, and the effect it appeared to have on her breathing.

It was our first time meeting Henrietta, and I was not sure how the visit would go when I entered the room. The interaction I observed just confirmed the power of Gopher's work, and the strength of human-animal bond. Thank you Henrietta for letting me see this, I hope you have found peace.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Gopher Cards

Therapy teams throughout the world are known to leave mementos of their visits with patients whether they are long term or short term. This can be just about anything, educational items, photos, but never food. One popular item to leave is trading cards.

It is so much fun when entering a patients room to discover they have posted the various trading cards of the animals who visit with them, even better when they say, "These are my doggies, they live with someone else, but they are mine." They then in turn tell you the story about each of the teams they see.

Gopher is now on series 2 of his trading card, and Squirrel is on series 1.

Gopher Series One:

This first card was the gift of our dear friends and fellow therapy team Lisa and Kodi. They came to us at a special time and was such a generous gesture that we hold both this card and Lisa and Kodi in high esteem. This also introduced me to Dave at After flying through these rather quickly with only a very few remaining one to be sent to our contest winner Finn Howard, it was time to order more. There are multiple companies and people that do this work. I was extremely impressed with Dave and company due to the sturdiness of the card, and his ability to take a non-creative persons idea and make an incredible card. So we had to use him again. This is an extra to therapy work, but for those of you considering this path, include in your planning an idea for a memento as it goes a long way in the patient getting to reflect on the experience when you and your partner cannot be there. We used Dave for Gopher Series 2 and Squirrel series 1 and have had great luck with Custom Sports Cards, should you choose to use them.

Gopher Series 2

Squirrel Series One:


Good Morning!

It has been a little while since you have heard from Gopher and I here at Gopher sessions. It's okay, Gopher and I are doing great, still visiting, and still having fun. So where have we been??? After two years of contract work in late July, professional opportunities poured in for me. After careful consideration, discussion with Carla, Gopher, our families and even Squirrel, I chose an opportunity that although fiscally low, came with immense personal satisfaction and began working for Midwest Animal Rescue & Services (MARS). So now my life has truly gone to the dogs, and I get to spend my days helping a wonderful organization help animals find their road home. If you live in the Twin Cities metro and looking for a way to help MARS, go to If you do not live in the Twin Cities, or do but unable to help you still can as our fundraiser is coming up go to

Now on to other news!!

1. Congratulations Finn and Marianne Howard!!! They won our photo contest!!! They were our only participants, but it does not make them any less winners! 

Their entry:

Finn and Marianne, keep it up! This trick evolved out of a quintessential command for therapy work, the leave it command. Finn is so beautiful and if you two ever have the inclination, Gopher and I would love to count you among our therapy peers.

2. Meeting a celebrity golden and his human. Carla and I recently had the opportunity to meet Fmr. Capt. Luis Carlos Montalvan and his service dog Tuesday! Luis and his story chronicled in Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him is a true American hero. In his book he discusses the recent Iraq conflict, his service, and the service of others. He commends his brothers and sisters in arms and acts as an advocate for veterans and service animals. At the same time he respectfully sheds light on the institutions, its flaws with the hope they will do better. Most notably is his brave discussion of his own trauma a TBI combined with PTSD and other physical afflictions, and how his appropriately trained service animal has allowed him to function in his post war life. It is a must read, and will be chronicled in a movie in 2013 as well.

Chad, Carla, Fmr. Capt. Montalavan, and Tuesday:

In his book he gave me the term 'Intelligent Disobedience' which explains some of Gophers actions in our therapy work. I thanked him for this, his service, and the bravery he showed in telling his story, and his help for all of our veterans while he signed a book for a friend who has recently enlisted and then wrote the following inscription in my book.

3. HRH King Gopher, THD! Gopher has received his first title (Therapy and Helping Dog), he had actually completed the needs for this title (50 visiting hours) some time ago. I just finally sent it in to the AKC. When it came in the mail I was surprised by how proud this little patch made me, brought tears to my eyes. I am always proud of Gopher and his work, and although I am his driver and handler he is truly the reason the work gets done. His excitement and desire to work, and his annoyance when we miss working for a week is almost inconsolable. We (Carla and I) are lucky with how exceptionally he has been able to do the job we selected for him. Congratualtions Gopher, we are so proud of you!


Gopher and his Patch:

4. Coming Up! With our short break, Gopher and I have several articles to write and share. They will begin this evening, and there will be a new one posted each morning this week!

List and synopsis:

Evening 9/24/2012, Gopher Cards, we will be thanking Gopher card creators, and show you the digital images of the cards. Tell you how we use them, and how you can order them for your working dog.

Morning 9/25/2012, Not Always Positive, we will discuss a negative experience, how it was handled, and highlight that although our intent is always good you must always be an advocate for your partner first.

Morning 9/26/2012, Cruising, Images and highlights of summer driving with Gopher.

Morning 9/27/2012, Gopher Amazes Me Yet again, an interaction with a patient that transcends reason, and highlights Gopher's uncanny ability to relate to a patient and situation.

Morning 9/28/2012, How did I get here?, with the closing of September our first registration expires and we will have had Gopher for four years, I will reflect on the last two years of work and four years with Gopher. The effect it has had on me, and how my relationship with Gopher and our work has changed my perspective on the world.

It is good to be back and we look forward to reading your comments and e-mails!

Best Wishes,
Chad and Gopher