If you have seen the Staff page of my website, www.ElderLawMS.com/staff, you know that Gus is my therapy dog. He is a handsome, blond Golden Retriever, about 95 pounds, a big boy. He is such a gentleman, loves everyone, is quite gentle with children. When we go for “visits” at healthcare facilities or disability camps and events, he will perform his numerous tricks to the participants’ delight. I will lead him among them to lay his chin in their laps and get petted. He will then lie down on the floor while numbers of children crawl and sit around and on him. They giggle when I take his long, feathery tail and tickle them with it. They hold his big, rough-padded paws and get him to “Shake Hands.” They lift his big velvety ears and tell him secrets – because, as I tell them, he loves to listen to secrets and he never, ever tells them to anyone else! For a few minutes, he is their best friend.
Years ago, I noticed that Gus has an intuition about children. When he sees a child standing back, afraid to come close to the big dog, he will – most of the time without command – lay his chin down flat on the floor between his paws, seeming to try to become as small and un-intimidating as possible. All the while, his eyes follow the child to see if they will come closer. I believe he is hoping they will come to him, that he craves the joy of contact with the little ones. And often, we can make that happen in ways that give the child a feeling of joy and connection and a bit more control and power in his or her life. After all, THAT is what therapy dogs do.
Gus is older now. He will be 11 years old in November of this year – or around 77 years old in “people years.” A few years ago, he developed a nickel-size black spot on one side of his tongue along with some other age spots here and there under his long coat. Often, during a visit, someone will ask “What’s that spot on his tongue? What causes that?” (You know, the skin of youngsters is so smooth and even, they have no clue!) I hold out my arm and point to one of the several small dark spots on my arm or the back of my hand and say “You see that? That’s an age spot, just like the one on Gus’ tongue. We got those spots from getting kind of old and wise. So I am thinking about calling them ‘smart spots.’ What do you think?”
Gus is slower getting up nowadays. He lies around a lot, and he arises slowly, pushing up from front to back, like peeling a piece of tape off your skin when you are afraid to yank it off. A couple weeks ago, we went for a visit with a group of boys at the State Hospital. As one of his tricks, I have always patted my chest and said “Gus, let’s dance!” He would immediately spring up on hind legs and I would grab his front paws, looking him almost straight in the eyes as we would do a two-step tango. For the first time ever, while visiting with the boys, he refused to dance. He looked up at me with a “I-would-love-to-but-the-hips-won’t-take-it” look, and then just looked away as if to ignore the command and make it go away. I knew this was coming. He has not jumped up on our bed for a nap in several months, even though he has long loved to stretch out there. It just got too high for him.
So, Gus don’t dance no more. And because I love and respect him, I won’t make him. At his age, he has earned the right not to do some things that are hard now. If he gets excited and jumps up for a rhumba, I will be there to grab his paws and enjoy the dance. But otherwise, he has taught me some things about getting older. I hope – as I will do for Gus – others will see me in later years as a gentleman who liked children, met strangers easily, enjoyed contact with others, and used to love to dance. But, don’t make me unless I want to!