Fortified with hugs and cookies, Misty was now officially On Duty. We stepped into the hallway and the ever-present Babs was sitting there in her wheelchair but for the first time, she was without her ever-present smile – in fact, she appeared fussed about something.
Misty pulled me in the direction of the wee Scottish woman and tried to nuzzle under her arm but Babs clenched her arm close to her body. Unperturbed, Misty wagged her tail and licked the part of the scrawny arm she could reach over the table top of the chair.
“You know, Babs, you’re one of Misty’s favourite people.”
Babs looked puzzled.
“She pulled me over here to see you first.”
Babs’ face softened as she reached out and began patting Misty’s head. “Och, you’re a good doe-gy.”
“Babs, this is the first time I’ve ever seen you when you haven’t been smiling.”
A nurse came to stand beside me and looked at diminutive figure who seemed to grow grumpier with each breath. “You’re having a bad day, aren’t you?”
“I need to go down to the parking lot! Why will you no let me go? I want to go r-r-right now!”
Misty continued her nuzzling and licking despite her patient’s increasing agitation. Babs seemed oblivious to the attention she was receiving.
The nurse whispered to me, “She thinks her sons are waiting for her in the parking lot.” Then raising her voice, she said: “Babs, your sons were up here visiting you today.”
Babs paused to consider this information and appeared baffled.
Another nurse called out from within the Nurses’ Station. “I remember your sons being up here, Babs. They’re soooo good looking!”
Babs gave a dismissive wave but began to look immensely pleased. Her smile had returned.
The nurse beside me chimed in, “Ya, Babs, you did a great job there... Woo-Hoo! Too bad they’re both married!”
“Och! Gi’ on wi’ ya!” Babs smiled broadly.
As Misty and I turned to leave, a middle aged man bustled up to us. “Can I pat your dog?”
“That’s why she’s ...here...” Before I finished my sentence, Misty had leaned into the man and started licking his arms.
He straightened up and said, “Can you come see my beautiful wife?”
“Sure... she may already be on our Visit List... what’s her name?”
Before I could consult our List, he began to speak, picking up speed with each utterance...a canoe hurtling toward the falls. “We’ve-only-been-married-three-years....terminal-brain-cancer... my-beautiful-wife... can-you-believe-that...? but-she-loves-dogs...”
“We’ll be by in a few minutes.”
“Great-thanks-thanks-very-much...” He dashed in the direction of his wife’s room.
In the first room we visited, I looked for Hugh but his bed was empty. He’s told me that on Wednesday evenings (our usual time for visiting) he eagerly awaits his Pet Therapist. A very kind-hearted person, Hugh will tell you about his now-departed but still greatly cherished cat. When the tabby was leaving This Life, Hugh had laid on the floor, placing the cat on his chest. Through the night, he’d remained on the floor while the little girl’s breathing slowed and slowed until finally it stopped. To this day, he wears the cat’s collar and bell around his wrist – both commemoration and talisman.
As Misty and I returned to the hallway, down the corridor a door flew open and a woman and man burst forth and erupted into tears. Clearly, they had just lost a loved one. The woman saw us and all but ran to Misty, then locked her arms around Misty’s neck, and cried and cried. Misty’s face was soft. Her tail wagged ever so slightly. She did not move apart from offering a few gentle licks to the woman’s face. Eventually, the woman straightened up, took a long breath and without a word or eye contact, turned walked back toward the room. I looked down at Misty, wondering how she perceived this event. She had done exactly what the situation had required. No hesitation. No wondering or confusion. Pure reaction. A perfect reaction. How did she know?
Well known Canadian psychologist, Stanley Coren, has written that scientists classify helping behaviour into four categories: comforting, sharing, providing information or informing, and “instrumental helping” – that is, physically doing something to aid an individual. In an interesting, recently reported study researchers investigated whether domestic dogs engaged in instrumentally helping humans without special training. They employed a number of situations, varying:
i. the way in which the experimenter expressed what she wanted the dog to do, in some situations offering a reward and in others, no reward was given; and
ii. the person doing the communication – the experimenter in one situation and the dog’s owner in another.
The results demonstrated that dogs are motivated to help without receiving a reward when the human’s natural behaviours facilitated the dog’s recognition of the human’s goal. Of great interest to the setting of Pet Therapy, the identity of the human (whether experimenter or owner) had no influence on the dogs’ behaviour.
Whether Misty is dealing with a patient descending into coma, grieving family, or fatigued hospital staff, she does manage to recognize what the human wants of her and she seems effortless in her attempts to help each human... but of course, there is the occasional blip...
In the next room we visited a prim woman who was laying on her side in the bed. I asked if she’d like a visit with Misty. When she smiled and nodded, I lowered the bedrail and Misty, as is her custom, alley-ooped her front half onto the bed for cuddling.
The woman's reaction caught Misty and I both by surprise.
“Get that dog off the bed! She has no business on the bed!”
Hasty apologies, rail raising and exiting behaviour quickly followed.
I moved closer and lowered my voice to just above a whisper. “Val, I’ve brought my dog to visit you... would you like to see her?”
She blinked, not seeming to grasp my question. Husband said, “Honey, look! This beautiful dog is here to visit you. Would you like that?” No response from Val but Husband nodded at me.
Slowly, I lowered the bedrail and as Misty moved closer, I carefully placed her front paws beside Val. Still Val seemed uncomprehending, so Husband lifted her arm and placed it over Misty’s neck. Misty responded with gentle licking of Val’s arm.
A soft murmur came from the crowd at the foot of the bed. “Ah, look at that!”, “God love her...” “Such a beautiful dog...”
Val never did seem to grasp what was happening. Husband looked at me with tears in his eyes and whispered, “Thank you.” Then he raised his voice a little and said, “Thank you, too, Misty.”
The Foot Of The Bed Crowd echoed, “Yes, thank you, Misty,” “Thanks,” “Good-bye,” “Come back soon”.
As we were leaving the room, Misty was walking more slowly. She was beginning to tire...providing care and tenderness to people does require great energy from any Therapy Dog. We returned to the Nurses’ Station for the Off-Duty hugs and cookies ritual and turned to leave. Then we saw him. Hugh was “walking” toward us in his wheelchair. I was thankful he had a pillow across his knees because when he said, “Misty! Come here, Girl!” Misty obliged by leaping up with her front end, doggy elbows landing on that pillow. Then the smooching began... all over Hugh’s face.
“Oh, good Girl, good Girl.” Hugh turned his face from side to side to side as Misty licked him repeatedly. He looped his arms around her neck and sent his own kisses into the air. Abruptly, he stopped and looked directly into Misty's eyes. “Do you cure cancer?” Misty merely resumed her kissing. “I know...I know... You’re trying.”
* * *
 “When Will Dogs Try to Help Humans?” Psychology Today, Canine Corner. August 14, 2013.
 Bräuer, J., Schöenefeld, K., Call, J. “When Do Dogs Help Humans?” Applied Animal Behaviour Science, August 7, 2013, in press, accepted manuscript.