New World Library is the publisher of Dogs and the Women Who Love Them plus the Angel Animals series of feel good books by Allen and Linda Anderson.
!-->!-->!-->!-->!-->!-->!-->Dogs and the Women
Keeper Named Cissy
Mary Haack, Arvada, Colorado
A littlewhite paw timidly poked through the bars on the cage. Looking down to find out what was attached to this little paw, I saw a white foxlike face with a big smile and huge mahogany eyes. The dog wagged her tail as fast as she could. She had almost no hair, and her belly was still distended from recently birthing pups. I knelt down, holding the little paw, and was rewarded with kisses from this beautiful dog. She looked to be no more than a puppy herself. “American Eskimo — Female,” read the tag over the cage at Denver Municipal Animal Shelter. Her age was estimated at one year, and she needed a loving home.
“Ken,” I called out to my husband who was a few cages away, “I think I found a keeper.”
My recently widowed mom was looking for a companion to fill her lonely nights. Her daytime hours were tolerable, but the long evenings and nights without my dad had left her feeling alone and even more despondent. We thought a small, loving dog would bring her comfort. She’d asked for an older dog who didn’t have to be housebroken and would lie on her lap or at her feet at night while she watched television.
Ken brought Mom over to the American Eskimo’s cage, and the dog was ecstatic to have so many people paying attention to her. She did two little circles, bowed, and tapped her front paws on the floor of the cage. Then she rubbed sideways against the gate, so we would pet her. Mom took an immediate liking to the dog. Ken and I were relieved. We had been visiting shelters in the Denver area for weeks now, and Mom hadn’t seen any dogs she cared for.
I wondered if it was my imagination, but this pup seemed to have eyes only for me. I was surprised at myself for thinking that way. After all, the dog was for Mom. I had no interest in adding a dog to my already busy life of working full-time, parenting a teenager, and being Mom’s support system. And yet it wasn’t only me who noticed. “The dog acts like she wants to be Mary’s more than mine,” Mom said. My heart dropped. I did my best to act nonchalant. “She’s happy, Mom, with a lot of love to share, and she’s just what you need.”
We discovered then that the little white dog had given birth to a litter of puppies shortly before being picked up while wandering the streets of Denver. The shelter staff had no idea where the pups were. In the two weeks since she’d arrived, no one had come forward to claim this lovely, nearly hairless dog. Spaying her was an absolute must, and then she would be available for adoption two days later. The staff assured Mom that the dog’s hair would eventually grow back. They explained that it was normal for this breed to drop its fur during the final stages of pregnancy and while birthing pups.
After she had been spayed, Ken picked up the dog from the clinic. Because she was still woozy from the effects of the anesthesia, Ken carried her into Mom’s house. The dog’s sleepy eyes found mine immediately, and her tail gave a small wag. Ken put her in my lap, and she fell asleep with a soft sigh.
While gently petting her, we tossed around ideas for her new name. Since she was white, we went through names like Cotton, Snowball, Snowie, Cloud—all the obvious ones. Then Mom told us that, as a child, she had had a puppy named Cissy, whom she adored. The dog was hit by a car, and Mom had been devastated.
Even though we chuckled and said it was a rather “sissy” name, our family duly approved it. Because I happen to think all living creatures deserve a middle name, I tacked Ann onto the name Cissy. My Mom was a devout Catholic, and at confirmation Ceremonies people of that faith often add the names of patron saints to their birth names. To take this naming process a step further, and to tease my mom, I chose the additional name Marie because it went well with Ann. The family laughed at what we could now call “Mom’s Catholic dog.” Even Cissy woke up long enough to wag her tail at the happiness and laughter she had already created. Now Cissy Ann Marie had a new home, and Mom had a new companion.
Life with Cissy Ann MarieWasn’t Heavenly
Unfortunately, this new relationship wasn’t made in heaven after all.Mom wasn’t as ready for a dog as she thought. Cissy kept escaping through the front door. She peed on the floor. She chewed up tissues, climbed on the furniture, and generally turned out to be more work than Mom had expected. After two short weeks Mom announced that she was giving poor little Cissy back to the shelter.
We were distraught at the news. Mom maintained that she was simply too old to chase after a rambunctious puppy. My husband and daughter wanted to keep Cissy and train her properly. I felt torn, not only because taking on the responsibility of a dog is a lot of work, but also because we had recently lost our elderly beagle. Molly Brown was a sweet little dog who had wandered into our backyard one day and ended up staying. We’d had her for years when her hearing and vision began to diminish, as happens with older dogs. Our new house had a swimming pool and, unfortunately, one day Molly fell in the pool and drowned. It was a tragic accident and difficult for us to recover from. We never knew if she’d had a seizure and fell in or cut a corner during her walk along the deck. Molly Brown’s accident made me wonder if we even deserved another dog.
Taking up myusual pondering position, I sat on the kitchen floor to consider all possibilities. Cissy quietly climbed into my lap, gave my chin a couple of kisses, and settled in while softly sighing. I was hooked. There was no way I could allow this wonderful dog to be returned to the shelter. We told Mom that we would care for Cissy, train her, and then give her back when she knew how to behave for a senior citizen. Once it was made, I felt good about the decision. Sure, this would be more work for me, but I had a hunch Cissy would be worth it, and her love overpowered and apprehension I might have had. Besides that, I thought, training Cissy shouldn’t take too long. In no time at all, Mom would have an obedient, loyal dog.
For the rest of that spring and into early summer, Cissy managed to terrorize our house and backyard too. She pulled the cover off of our pool and chewed it, along with the pool hoses and spa cover. She chewed the corners off her doghouse and anything left on the floor. Then she would cuddle up to us, her large brown eyes begging for understanding but still full of joy and mischief.
We registered Cissy for dog training classes. She played, barked, pulled at her leash, sniffed everything in the room, and kept smiling with delight. We were certain she would flunk puppy class, given her reputation as the class clown. The all-important device of giving treats to train a dog didn’t do a thing for her; she ignored them and did whatever she wanted.
One day, she spontaneously reacted to a hand signal for the stay command, and we praised her verbally with excitement in our voices. Cissy looked at us with pure pleasure and proceeded to complete the course while we continued to offer only verbal praise, not treats, as positive reinforcement. She graduated and, from that day forward, was an extremely obedient dog, always willing to please. Although Mom began to comment on what a good dog Cissy was turning into, we said nothing about returning her. Cissy had wormed her way into my heart and filled a void I hadn’t even known I had. However, our success with Cissy would soon pave the way for Mom’s own happiness with a dog.
Cissy’s New Mission
One cold February morning a few years ago, I awoke with a horrible headache, extreme vertigo, a thick tongue, a foggy mind, and numbness on the left side of my face. These symptoms continued for weeks. Doctor after doctor failed to find an answer to my problem. With Cissy by my side, I would lie in bed with the curtains drawn and the doors closed to keep out the noise. I slept and cried while my dear pup licked tears off my cheeks as fast as they ran down.
When my husband entered the dark, gloomy room, Cissy would let out a small growl and move even closer to me until he spoke gently and assured her that he had no intention of harming me. When I could walk, she followed, and wouldn’t even let me go into the bathroom alone.
She began going to doctor appointments with me and attending my physical therapy sessions. Because Cissy became upset when people touched me, I did the sessions each time in a room where there were no other patients and always with the same gentle therapist that Cissy had learned to trust.
I had frequent panic attacks and stuttered uncontrollably without Cissy nearby. But when she was with me, and I had physical contact with her, I was able to talk to strangers. It became apparent that I could speak relatively well when the attention was not on me. With people focusing on my dog, I didn’t feel that others were judging me, and so I could simply talk about my favorite subject, Cissy. Incredibly, she instinctively knew when I was about to have a panic attack. She would guide me away from the source of my
anxiety, whether it was noise or a crowd of people, or climb into into my lap and lean gently against me.
I was finally diagnosed with multiple cranial neuritis. For the rest of my life I would have migraines, vertigo, memory problems, and panic attacks. This meant I needed to learn to live with my condition. After observing Cissy and me together, one of my doctors wrote a prescription making Cissy my official service dog.
Now, with Cissy’s assistance, I could begin to venture into society. As it turns out, having Cissy is one of the main reasons I’ve been able to move on with my life. Her comforting ways have reduced my stress levels. I acquire a gentle strength from her when I rest my hand on her soft fur. Similar to the little pink blanket I had as a child, Cissy provides me with a feeling of security that has been sorely lacking since my illness began.
Expanding Cissy’s Service
One day when I was at our local library, I saw a brochure for the Exempla Lutheran Medical Center Pet Therapy program. I just knew that Cissy would be great at animal-assisted therapy. I made a little promise that, if I could be on my own for a few hours at a time, I would share the love of my angel dog with other sick people. After all, Cissy was the reason I had progressed so well with my recovery.
I was enthusiastic about the program and really wanted to participate in it, but the brochure sat on top of my dresser for about two weeks before I gathered enough courage to call the number listed on it for more information. Wrestling with my own self-doubts, I kept asking myself if the hospital would be willing to take on and train a person with disabilities, even though I have a dog with so much love to share.
On the day I called the pet therapy program number, I spoke to the volunteer services coordinator, Debbie, who was so very nice. She made it easy for me to explain my situation and convey my desire to be a pet therapy volunteer. Debbie assured me that the volunteer trainers would be delighted to work with me. She talked about the qualities they were looking for in a pet therapy team and explained that the teams were carefully screened to satisfy the hospital’s liability insurance requirements.
I began to feel apprehensive because of my social anxieties and was anxious about making this big step. Would I remember everything? Would people like us? The most obedient dog still has a mind of her own—would I be able to make sure that Cissy followed all the rules? Since barking and licking were at the top of the list of no-nos, I wondered if I could stop Cissy from barking when she was happy or from kissing people when she felt they needed it. As I mulled over my decision, Cissy’s gentle, confident eyes reassured me. Wordlessly, she conveyed to me that we could do this together, as a team.
The volunteers in the pet therapy program were wonderfully caring with me, and they adored Cissy. The three leaders of the program helped us with every step in the application and training process. It usually takes about four months for a dog and handler to be trained for pet therapy. It took us a lot longer, but we were diligent, and I wanted desperately to volunteer. My various disabilities had left me with feelings of inadequacy—I needed this chance to give back to the community and to prove my worth.
I was trained in hospital codes, procedures, and protocol. Cissy Cissy had to pass two screenings by at least two volunteer veterinarians, who assessed her health and emotional and physical abilities. She took various tests that judged her reaction to loud noises, slamming doors, having her ears and tail pulled, and encountering equipment such as wheelchairs and IV poles—anything she could possibly experience in a hospital environment. Pet therapy dogs must remain calm and not nip, bark, or overreact to situations.
On our first therapy visit, a volunteer trainer shadowed us. I ended up having a panic attack, but Cissy was marvelous. She passed with flying colors, and the patients loved her. My next supervised visit went more smoothly. As long as I petted Cissy, I was able to knock on doors and enter patient rooms and converse with the occupants, mostly about Cissy. One woman wanted to see Cissy close up, but I didn’t have the physical strength to hold my dog over the bed. As if she knew what we wanted, Cissy jumped up on the visitor’s chair. I pushed the chair over to the bed so that the patient could pet and love Cissy. We were becoming good at creative teamwork. From that point on, when we visited the hospital, Cissy jumped on every chair she was allowed on so that the patient could gain access to her soft, silky fur.
The leaders of the pet therapy program are thrilled with our progress. They marvel at how well Cissy shares her love with sick people and the stressed-out medical staff. Nurses and doctors love the therapy dogs as much as the patients do. As soon as I take the purple uniforms that we wear for pet therapy out of the closet, Cissy becomes animated because she knows she is going to work for a couple of hours. As she enters the hospital, her tail curves tightly over her back, and she holds her head high. She is ready to perform her duty. When we leave the hospital, we are exhausted, and naps are in order for both of us. Cissy and I are extremely proud of our joint effort to give back to the community and help people deal with sickness.
Cissy Stays Home
Because of the incredible bond that Cissy and I have and Mom’s loving acceptance, we never did give her back. Mom ended up adopting another American Eskimo dog of her own, whom she named Missy. She enjoyed her for many years, and after Mom passed away, Missy, by then thirteen years of age, came to live with us. Missy is losing her eyesight, and Cissy walks with her, side by side, fur to fur, directing the blind dog wherever she needs to go. Even though Cissy sometimes steals Missy’s food, they are the best of friends.
Last summer Cissy developed a reaction to one of her vaccinations, and we almost lost her. Suddenly our roles were reversed as I spent every second by her side, taking care of her and loving her and praying for her recovery. She had begun bleeding internally, and to save her life she was given immediate blood transfusions. Even in her weakened state, with all she had to endure, her eyes still sought me out. Her flowing tail struggled to wave back and forth and showed me she was fighting to stay alive. It took a full year for her to return to good health.
We are now back to work in pet therapy on a part-time basis working in what are called “special units.” This consists of Cissy and me visiting larger groups of patients and their families in the chemotherapy infusion, outpatient surgery, and medical imaging areas. We don’t have to walk as far and are able to sit down while visiting.
Cissy will soon be on another leave of absence because the back left part of her body is not working well. I have been giving her supplements, prescriptions, hot baths, and acupuncture and am hoping things will get right with her again soon.
I just know that, from heaven, Mom had a hand in Cissy’s earlier miraculous recovery. From the beginning, Mom always knew that Cissy was attached to me. As she watched our relationship grow, she saw that I loved Cissy with all my heart and instinctively must have known that Cissy and I would need each other to survive.
Cissy seemed to know intuitively that becoming a therapy dog would bring joy to both her and Mary. What have similarly inspired dogs shown you about new directions in life?
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