Maximus – A Good Therapy dog


Maximus – a Good Therapy Dog

maximus-and-me“An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.”  Martin Buber

“Good morning Lena,”   I called as Max and I entered her room at the *Fountains Assisted Living Lodge.  Max, my yellow Labrador retriever, and I were on our weekly volunteer assignment.  Max wagged his tail in greeting.  Lena’s eyes lit up when she saw him.  I didn’t mind that she greeted Max before acknowledging me.   After all, he was the therapy; I merely tagged along. He was the main act; I was the sideshow.

I opened the blinds to let in some spring sunshine; then got down to the task at hand.  Max knew the routine.  He flopped down by the side of the bed, with that look – hey, it’s a hard job, but someone has to do it.  

“What’s for breakfast?” I asked.  Lena, what was left of her at 90, was sitting up in bed. Her breakfast tray, laden with dishes, hovered in front of her. Lena was essentially bedridden and needed help walking, eating, and dressing.  She opted to eat breakfast in her room and my job was to feed her and get as much nutrition into her fragile frame as possible.

While I fed Lena, Max lifted his head, his nose aquiver with the potpourri of smells wafting his way.  After a few spoons of oatmeal, Lena lost interest.  “What about this coffee cake,” I asked.  “It looks like a special treat.”  “Oh, I’ll save it for later,” she said, so I set the cake on her bedside table and removed the tray so we could talk. At the word “treat,” Max went on full alert.  I should have noticed.

I rearranged her pillows so she could sit back comfortably, then pulled up a chair. We were chatting away, when Lena, making a point, absentmindedly patted the bedcovers.  That was all the invitation Max needed.  With one leap he bounded up from the floor and landed, PLOP, on top of Lena. All 100 lbs. of him!  Thinking he’d squashed the breath out of her, I pulled him away.  Where was she?  I was about to ring for a nurse, when I heard a faint sound like wheezing, coming from her direction. Lena, under a heap of bedcovers and pillows, was barely visible, but a huge smile was plastered on her face.  The wheezing sounds were chuckles.

Relieved we hadn’t killed our patient, I straightened her out as best I could.  “Are you alright?”  I asked.

“I haven’t had a good laugh like this in a long time,” she wheezed. “Good boy,” she said, as she stroked Max’s silky, golden fur. Good dog, Really?   When it was time to go, Max jumped down and an exhausted Lena settled in for a nap. I straightened up and we left. Walking down the hall, I couldn’t help but notice a distinct cluster of crumbs on Max’s nose. That too, I wondered?

Max, majestic as ever, looked straight ahead.  “Don’t even ask…” his eyes seemed to say.maximus-the-magnificent

Another time, I came to play the piano for the residents during the lunch hour. As Max and I walked to the dining room, a fire alarm went off in the building. Max stiffened. I’ll let you in on a secret: for all his 100 lbs., grandeur, and majestic bearing, Max is a wimp.  Beeping smoke alarms, sirens, and thunder – anything with a high frequency, sends him into spasms.  At home, he heads downstairs, where he hides under a desk in my husband’s office – the farthest point from the noise.  I was about to leave, when the director came by.  “False alarm,” she explained.  When the alarm sounded a second time, I headed for the door.  “No, no,” she said. “I’ll go find out what the problem is.  There’s no fire drill scheduled for today.  Please stay.  The people love to hear you play.”

When the ringing stopped, I tethered Max to a chair and told him to lie down. He was still shaking and gave me a worried look.  An aide promised to keep an eye on him, so I proceeded to the piano at the other end of the room.  I was well into my concert of oldies, when the alarm sounded yet again.  I stopped playing and looked across the room where Max was.  He was nowhere to be seen.

“Oh no,” I thought.  Perhaps the aide had taken him outside away from the noise, which this time, didn’t stop.  Finally I spied him.  He was heading to an exit, laboriously pulling the chair along behind.  When I freed him, he looked at me, raw fear in his eyes.  I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m getting out of here.

These were just a few of the adventures I enjoyed with Max. He was still a pup when we started volunteering. One of my first assignments was answering phones at the Hospice office. Max was in training then and the staff loved him.  He was allowed free rein of the building. And, he reigned.  Once he returned to my desk with a soup can stuck on his nose.  He had a hard time explaining that one. Another time, he emptied the garbage can in the staff room and finished off a big Mac value meal. To his credit, he had enough manners to leave the condiments.  And the time we were invited to a resident’s birthday party.  She’d invited a few friends to her room for cake.  Max and I stopped by with a card and balloon.  The birthday girl, who was 90, was passing around slices of cake, when one of her friends looked at the plate she was given and said, “Ellen, where’s my cake?  You gave me an empty plate.”  I looked at Max.  Staring straight ahead.  “No matter,” cooed the hostess, unphased.  “Here’s another piece.”  Then she winked at me.  That said it all.

No wonder Max loved doing therapy work.  Laying around, just being himself.  How hard is that? The people adored him. And the payoffs were huge.

That was Max – he was a good therapy dog.    maximus-in-snow

Note:  Max was a Paws with a Cause reject, but he made a great therapy/Hospice dog.  I credit Max with helping us find Pelican Cove, our winter abode in FL. He was loved by everyone who was lucky enough to know him.

*Fountains Assisted Living Center is a fictional name as are the names of the residents in the story.


      Hoeing “In the Garden” #1
Note:  The memoir, In the Garden, portrays my mother, Ellen, an ordinary woman, who became extraordinary by surrendering her will and ego to the will of God at every crossroads of her life.  She chose faith over doubt, acceptance over resignation, hope instead of despair.  “Not my will, but Thy will be done,” was her mantra.  Ellen lived her entire life in a house, on the hill, on a farm in west Michigan(the site of present day Country Dairy)rooting herself in the place where she believed God had planted her.  There, alongside the love of her life, Henry, she found her calling as a helpmeet for him and transformed the house on the hill into a place of beauty and sanctuary for their family.  To view the memoir visit or
In Hoeing “In the Garden,” the author revisits her mother’s story, cultivating and digging up tidbits of truth to provide inspiration and encouragement for the challenges of her life.

“In those days of wonderment, I met God.  I had come to know Him through the revelation of His Word and in creation.  And, then in the times I spent with you, I found God anew.  I looked in your face and saw Him.”(In the Garden, A Final Word, page 195)
           Finding God in an Alzheimer’s Residence
     Maggie May, my Welsh terrier pup and therapy dog in training, and I visit a local Memory/Alzheimer’s Unit(this photo is not taken from there), where I sit and sing hymns to the residents while Maggie works her magic with them.
     From my experience as a Hospice/nursing home volunteer, I’ve learned not to base what I do – reading psalms and singing hymns, on the residents’ states of being.  Many are asleep when I come.  My challenge is to have most of them awake by the time I leave.  Not just awake either, for the familiarity of the hymn I’m singing or the psalm I’m reciting gets their lips moving and tongues humming! When awake, these folks are lucid.  They converse with me and Maggie May.  They thank us for coming.  I thank them for blessing my day.              
     In the Memory Unit, things are markedly different.  Here again most residents will be sleeping when Maggie May and I arrive, and while some will wake up during our visit, we are met with blank stares, empty expressions and varying stages of lucidity.
     On a given day, one more expressive resident, we’ll call Susan(name
is changed)is chattering about photos. Nothing of what she says makes sense,
yet she chatters on, deftly fitting her focus of the day – photos – into
the conversation. This is the same resident who hums in harmony
with every hymn I sing, sounding like an organ or bass vial.
While I sit and sing hymns into the silent space, Maggie frisks about
oblivious to the seeming disingenuousness of the situation.
For a time, Maggie is coaxed into sitting with Mary(name changed),
who beams radiantly at her charge. 
     Everything about the atmosphere in the room is “off.” There is no
“normal” human communication – no words, facial expressions, gestures –
nothing but silence and the unique mannerisms of this crippling disease
manifesting themselves here and there.
     Yet, for all of that, I realize as I sing out, unheeded,  every person there
is a child of God – every being in the room, encased in a body, has a soul,
which will live on when their bodies join their already departed minds and
in that realization, the truth of eternity stabs my heart.  I look at each one anew,
looking past their bodies and frailties to the soul that is within. I am singing
past the bodies to the formless entity of the eternal.
     And, while I am well aware of the pain that Alzheimer’s cause to families
and to those aware enough to know that their minds are leaving them, I
know that every resident sitting in the circle, oblivious as he or she may be, is
living testament to the truth of God’s promises. 
     “For the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them
 and lead them to living fountains of waters.  And God shall wipe
away every tear from their eyes.”  (Revelation 7:17)
     And, I sing on.  “Amazing grace…”