Last Saturday, July 21, 2018, New Life K9s held a wonderful celebration and graduation of a very special canine, Caramella (AKA Bella) who has come to join me in my private practice as a Warrior Support Dog, serving veterans with PTSD. This month, I’d like to share with you, some of the words I shared with all the special people there.
I worked as a psychologist for many years without benefit of what a canine companion could bring to healing and growth, both inside and out of the counseling environment…and now I wonder how much more I could have brought had I known, both personally and professionally, the remarkable gift of the animal-human bond
I started the thread of my work with trauma with the LA CO Sheriff’s Dept in 1984, working in critical incident debriefing and then, with the military, in 1988 when I moved to Southeast Asia as a USC faculty member for what was supposed to be 11 months but turned into 7 years, during which time the first Gulf War occurred and I had the only private practice on an island with 30k service members, plus many family members. When I went to Asia, I had very little direct exposure to those in the military except those in law enforcement who had come from military service. In those years, I came to an ever-deepening appreciation of those who serve, whether it be their country or community, and have maintained a long-term commitment to those who serve.
It was 2007 when I got my first dog, Koki, a 4-year-old Jindo/Shepherd mix rescue who had been raised as a companion to an elderly invalid who died when he was 2, leaving him traumatized. I didn’t really get him with the idea of him working with me, but it became clear he had a natural gift for tending to those who were in need, distress or sorrow. Koki was a strong silent type of guy…not a big snuggler but deeply committed, bonded, present and loyal…and a gazer. (I note this just in terms of the contrast to the exuberant, hug-loving, affectionate nature of Caramella – Bella who loves to give and get lots of PDAs!).
I had 10 amazing years with Koki. During that time, he offered steadfast care and emotional support to those who entered what I consider to be a type of sacred space of therapy. After he died, I could not imagine having another best friend and co-therapist for quite a while…but as we all know, life does not always proceed according to our plans.
Several months later, Nicole first approached me about how Caramella might not be finding her calling in her training as a full service dog for veterans with PTSD. She believed Caramella-Bella had the makings of a wonderful therapy dog, and if she was with me, she would be able to bring care, comfort and healing to a significant number of veterans in the years to come.
I was quite hesitant, not really ready to open my own healing heart up yet…even though the loss my clients and I experienced when Koki died left a profound void. The space of my office didn’t feel right without the presence of the unconditional love and support Koki companion brought us all. I said, “I just don’t feel she is really my dog.” But the plot continued…or maybe it's more fair to say, Nicole simply knew before I did that Caramella-Bella was, indeed, meant to be my next co-therapist and best friend. A couple of months later, when I was ready to volunteer to be a back-up puppy parent, fairly soon a request came to take care of Caramella while her then puppy parent was on spring break…and the rest is now history. Caramella, too, seemed to have her own agenda about coming into my life and the lives of those I serve. The thing about having a broken heart is that, in the best of all worlds, it is broken open and loving beings can slip into the space of the break and take up residence…and she did. She just made herself at home and expanded my heart in the process.
Her coming into her role as a Warrior Support Dog (though she is also equally there for all my clients) has been coming along beautifully. Though she has just been officially mine (and theirs) for about 7 weeks (and she, theirs), she has already touched them profoundly.
She is adapting to the nature of this work of having one person at a time come, and then another. I have adjusted our schedule a bit with a bigger break between clients and a longer midday break where we can get out for a walk. Otherwise, she falls asleep later in the day from compassion fatigue…As one veteran said, “As long as YOU aren’t falling asleep on me, Doc, she can take a nap.”
If you know Caramella-Bella, you know she doesn’t really think dog beds are for her and feels her rightful place is on a sofa or chair. She has learned to wait for the okay from a client that she can join them on HER sofa…(She’s quite benevolent in that respect). It is rare anyone would prefer her anywhere else. She stays close enough to just be an arm’s reach away when someone spontaneously reaches out to stroke her when some comfort is needed. When that happens it adds to, not only my awareness of the emotional needs of the moment, but of her powerful, silent invitation to be of comfort. She, much of the time, spontaneously knows when to just stay put and be stroked while, sometimes, she will reposition herself for an open invitation to rub her belly. It seems, at times, she knows when a person needs a few moments of getting out of him or her self and into her… Her completely unabashed invitation brings sweet smiles and laughter. I would say she is a role model of expressing her desire for affection.
When someone is upset or agitated, she is quick to nudge or nuzzle. Just this last week, a client came, clearly agitated and angry coming through the door. When he sat down, she was there to say hello and he stopped to greet her back and interact with her. When I asked how he was, he said, “Well, I came in angry but right now, I can’t seem to get back there. She did that.” Her behavior creates experiences and opportunities to explore how distress can dissipate in that connection. It doesn’t mean the upset won’t be addressed but her offering of such a pure connection and what that can bring is transformative and supports the learning of self-soothing and navigating the waters of intense emotion.
A few were a bit slower or hesitant to warm to her after being so very attached to Koki…as was I…however, this has been fairly short-lived for all of us. My most hesitant veteran finally succumbed to her earnest attention, saying, “She does seem like a very good girl.” Her charm is hard to resist.
Perhaps the most poignant response to Bella, of the last week, was from a client in deep despair and struggling with hope. Bella came up to her side, put her head on her arm and gazed into her eyes. After a few moments she said, with a deep sigh “She looked right into my soul and right now, I really feel loved.”
My clients already find such joy and comfort and love, both from and for her, it seems I could just leave them alone with Bella for our time and, as much, maybe even more might be accomplished in their growth and movement to greater well-being. She has something to offer beyond what I do…but, I’ll try to be a good second fiddle to the gifts she offers to her growing fan club.
I cannot thank, enough, everyone at New Life K9s who was a part of the plot to so generously bring Bella into my life and into service for all my veterans and other clients…and my students at Cal Poly. What you do is so very valuable and I’m so honored to know you all.
Robin Lewis, Ph.D.