Our Neighbors: A dog's job

Saturday December 29, 2012

I can't end your headache. I can't take the a splinter from your thumb.

If you twist your ankle, you're better off with ice. If you get sunburned, I'm no match for aloe.

But if you're lonely, if you're scared, I can help.

That's my job.

You see, I like you. I like to be near you. I like your voice. I like the way you rest your hand on my head. I like to hear you breathe. When we are together, I couldn't be happier to be with you.

Sometimes you are a child. Your smells are more like mine then, simple and clean even if your clothes are a little dirty. We sit together in a room with bright lights -- don't worry, I don't mind. That's part of why I'm good at my job. I can handle hard lights and sudden noise. I'm always right here with you.

I'm wearing my special bandanna, sometimes a small coat, so everyone knows I'm here to work, to be with you. You open a book. You read aloud.

The sounds trip and flutter between us. Sometimes you stop for a long minute, say a word, stop again. Sometimes you reach out and touch my back or paw. I listen. I am content. I love everything you are doing and I don't need you to change.

Your voice grows warmer in my ear. How wonderful. I look at you. How wonderful. Your small shoulders soften, and you lean against me gently as you finish the last two pages. How wonderful. You sit and listen with me as another child, his face tight at first, joins us with his book and his voice. Then you give me a treat in the shape of the letter "d" for dog. How wonderful.

Sometimes my main person, my colleague and guide, drives me to a building where the smells are more complicated, more chemical. Don't worry, I don't mind. There is nowhere I'd rather be than here with you, in your chair with wheels, with the poles and tubes.

I slip my head beneath your hand. Sometimes you need help to know that I am here. I nudge your leg with my nose, and I feel the pulse in your thumb steady against the ridge of my brow.

I wait. It's very quiet. It is so nice to be with you. From far away, you smile. You begin to tell a story about a dog you had when you were a kid, and you stroke my back with a frail and searching hand. I press my whole body against your leg. I feel you there, absolutely there, with the current of touch between us as real as my bowl of food, my own paws, my morning walk.

I go to you with your thick sadness. I go to you with your confused eyes and sharp whispers. I go to you with the shame that smells like old eggs and cough syrup. I go to you dying. How wonderful you are. Let us sit together quietly here, where you are, with your hand scratching my rump or behind my ears. When it is time to go, I will know, and I will leave as lightly as I came, but that's not now. Right now we are together, me and you.

They call me a therapy dog. There are a lot of us, calm dogs who like people, who can handle noise and light and the unpredictable. We're not fancy pets. We are good at being patient and friendly. We are trained to do this work, and we have owners who are good at helping us do it.

We don't change the world. I don't anyway. I'm only a dog, and that's good enough for me. But people change when they spend time with me, with us. They calm down. They feel less afraid. Their hearts beat more easily. The little ones feel differently about books. Some of them realize they like to read. Some realize they like feeling love. Some learn what it means to be good to another creature. Some of the grown-ups remember what it's like to feel joy. Some remember hope.

One man, he buried his face in my fur. His hands shook and his smells were heavy. He breathed with his cheek against my ribs. The grown-ups usually just pet me, but there was something of the child in him. I breathed. He breathed. He sniffed and told me a story about motorcycles and powdered lemonade. I listened. I loved him, then I moved on.

When I sleep, I dream of you, and I dream of steak, and I dream of the creek where I catch fuzzed-up yellow balls and dig in mud. You are with me there. I splash across the creek and climb the short steep bank. I can see you now, all of you. You play, you shout, you build fires and castles, you lose earrings, you swing fists and you fall. How wonderful to be with you. How perfect you all are.

Becky Karush is a regular contributor to the Reformer. To suggest people for this column, write to her at reformer.ourneighbors@gmail.com.


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