In a weblog entitled, “Neuroanthropology”, Greg Downey from Macquarie University explores “the implications of new findings in the neurosciences for our understanding of culture, human development, and behaviour.” In his very interesting post on August 23, 2010, Downey discussed, “The dog-human connection in evolution”, including the host of advantages reaped by the large brained hominids that occurred when they began to domesticate animals.
Of interest to me, as one half of a Therapy Dog team, was the material Downey presented on how humans learned to cue on dogs’ behaviour. He referred to the possibility of human dependence on dogs as “sensory prostheses” – in other words, recognizing that dogs “know” things that humans do not know as they are beyond the threshold of human perception.
Equally as interesting, Downey discussed research that demonstrated dogs also cue off the perceptions and non-verbal communication of humans (such as pointing). He stated that this animal connection was a manifestation of social intelligence – part of a suite of advantages that came with our big brains.
How, then, can some humans come to cling onto dogs in shadowy times, when others reject the connection, even shrilly, and contemplate the abyss alone? This is a mystery I’ll plumb in future weblogs but is relevant to some events of October 15th...
* * *
“You know I’m gonna steal your dog...” *Russ winked. The husband of one of the patients on the Palliative Care Unit, Misty and I happened upon him as we entered the hospital. “I love this dog so much.” He crouched down and took Misty’s happy face in his hands.
“How’s your wife?”
Russ shrugged. “She’s in a private room now... so...” Misty was licking his hands and arms – and he stayed crouched so she could continue caring for him.
“I’m sorry to hear this, Russ. Is she comfortable?”
“Oh, yes...” He chatted affably, telling me how his Life Partner, Mother of their children, Best Friend was getting “great care” from the “fantastic nurses”.
“And how are you doing?”
He abruptly straightened up. No eye contact. Shrugged. Just then, a pregnant woman strode up beside him. Russ playfully elbowed her arm and said, “I love this dog.” With conversation safely redirected he said, “I’m gonna steal her.”
The woman turned to me. “Better make sure Dad doesn’t get your address.” She winked.
“Hey, you! Go take your vitamins.”
They gently prodded each other in the direction of the hospital’s Tim Horton’s. It was going to be another long night for them.
“It’s Misty!” “Misty’s back!” “Come here, Girl.” “I missed you.” The Secret Drawer at the nursing station was quickly opened and dog cookies produced. Misty seemed to be just another one of “the girls”, hangin’ out with the other caregivers at the beginning of her shift. Before she was completely filled with treats, leaving no room for patients to feed her – okay, we’re dealing with a Golden Retriever – there’s always room for more treats -- we set off down the corridor.
At Party Central, Party Guy’s wife and son were visiting. Misty pushed past them to get to PG in the bed. Wife’s hands flew up. “Oh! I see how it is... we don’t rate, eh?” PG looked hugely satisfied when Misty alley-oop’d her front half onto the bed.
As she snuggled in close to her patient, I asked, “Do you have pain any place near where Misty’s lying?”
PG shook his head “no” but Wife supplied his words. “No...” She exhaled a long breath that told their story – a breath ladened with frustrations, fears, of nights robbed of sleep, simple life patterns ruptured. “That’s the only thing to be thankful for in all this craziness. At least he doesn’t have pain.”
We turned back to PG and Wife laughed when she saw how comfortably Misty had settled in. “Well, I guess I’ll just come back in the morning to get her.” Misty’s tale was wagging -- she was in on the joke – like always.
PG was smiling broadly, mutely. Language had been one casualty of his disease experience. I reached for the highly coveted pumpkin and blueberry dog snacks. As he offered Misty one treat after another (and she obligingly nibbled each), PG had a faraway look on his face. Wife noticed and said, “Does she remind you of *Punkin?”
PG nodded several times while Wife explained that Punkin was PG’s family dog when they met ... a dog renowned for her mischief. Even as they were courting, PG’s mother would insist they take Punkin on walks by the beach where she feasted on Heaven-Knows-What that washed up and rolled in dead fish on the shore. As their towering son looked on, PG and Wife both grew quiet. Their early promise-filled days had been overtaken by the chaotic march of mortgage payments, family vacations, two kids now grown, then a fearsome diagnosis and lately, after-dinner companionship – but not conversation - on the Palliative Care Unit.
A new man was in the bed opposite PG. “Ooooooh! What a nice doggie. You come here.” He patted his chest in invitation. I caught Misty’s forepaws before they landed on his chest and placed them safely at his side (Misty can be such a Literalist). “What’s his name?”
“Her name is Misty.”
“Oh, good dog. What time is it?”
“Almost 7:00.... in the evening.”
“Was that supper I just had?”
“Yeah... it’s pretty confusing trying to keep track of time in here, eh?”
He was trying to get a word in edge-wise. Misty was licking his face, having moved up from his arms and sleeves. “Good boy. Good boy.”
I looked up at PG’s wife. We shared a smile.
As Misty and I were leaving he said, “Make sure you come back.”
“Misty is insisting... we’ll see you next week.”
“Don’t you come in here! Get that dog out.” In this room, the shared evolution of human and dog seemed a forgotten historical relic... fragments of dried bone that could not be reassembled. Unfortunately, the other woman who shared the room with the lady asking us to leave – well, kicking us out, really -- had requested a visit from Misty. I stepped in to see if she was awake.
“I said, GET THAT DOG OUT OF HERE!”
I spoke very quietly. “ This patient,” I motioned to the woman who was, to my everlasting relief, sleeping in the other bed, “asked for a visit from the Therapy Dog. That’s why we’re here...”
She shot a glare at the sleeping figure. The incredulity she seemed to be feeling was written all over her purpling face.
“... but since this patient is sleeping, we’ll leave.” Note to self: better communicate this dynamic to the staff.
We stepped into the hall and paused for me to sanitize my hands before entering the next room. We walked past the first bed since the woman in that bed had not asked for a visit from Misty. I addressed the woman in the next bed. “You asked for a visit with the therapy dog?”
The woman propped herself up on her elbow and said in an irritated tone said, “Now why would I do that?”
“Ah. My mistake. Good night.” Misty and I started backing up through the maze of tables, beds and deep chairs.
“Wait! Why are you leaving?”
“Uh, well...” I stumbled inanely trying to find an appropriate response when the woman in the first bed looked up at me. She had a feeding tube taped to her nostril.
“They’re poisoning me! It’s rat poison!”
I wondered whether there was this much mental confusion among the patients during the daylight hours... or did the fog swirl about more brazenly in the evening, when shadows crept in from the corners?
“Oh, there’s the dog we saw downstairs! Can you come in here?” Misty and I were waved into a room that wasn’t on our list. The man in the bed had just been admitted. It was obvious from his open, unfocused eyes that his time in This Life was drawing to a close.
“You were putting sanitizer on the dog’s feet! I saw that! I’m so glad you’re here! Is it okay for us to see the dog?”
The rat-a-tat-a-tat of the woman’s speech was discordant against the seesaw, groaning out-breaths of the skeletal figure in the bed. It seemed curious that Misty virtually ignored the struggling patient, focussing instead on the young man, presumably the patient’s son, sitting in the chair. He’d said nothing between his mother’s bursts of conversation, but his outstretched arms said it all: Misty was welcomed into his quiet sadness.
As we were signing out at the nurses’ station, Russ walked by and crouched over once again to touch Misty’s soft ears. “Wow. I love this dog so much.” A week later when Misty and I returned to the floor, Russ, his daughter and his wife were there no more.
 See Miklosi et al. A simple reason for a big difference: wolves do not look back at humans, but dogs do.” (2003) Current Biology 13 (9), 763-6.