by Lee Juslin
When Shiloh decided to get a dog, her first dog, she took all the right steps. She went to a breeder with a reputation in the breed and selected a puppy. When the puppy seemed to have recurring tummy problems, she immediately took him to a vet. And, when that vet couldn’t diagnose the problem to her satisfaction, she went to another vet. It took several vet visits before she found one who could get to the bottom of the problem. Duke, her Rottweiler puppy, her first dog ever, had Irritable Bowel Syndrome and an undersized liver, conditions the vet told her were inherited.
Shiloh immediately attempted to contact the breeder to explain Duke’s situation. She wanted to urge her to take steps like not continuing to breed the two dogs that had produced Duke and to contact owners of other puppies in Duke’s litter. She received no response.
Although the vet bills were beginning to grow beyond what Shiloh had expected for her puppy, she was determined to do her best for Duke. Since there was no dog food available for both his IBS and his liver problems, Shiloh made his food for him with an almost completely vegan diet needed for his two conditions and went to the vet with him weekly for various treatments.
Through all his problems and pain, Duke proved to be a very sweet-natured dog who loved people and only wanted love and attention in return. So, Shiloh, having read and heard about therapy dogs, decided this might be something for Duke. Despite his discomfort, or maybe because of it, Shiloh knew Duke had something special to offer to people who were also in pain, and therapy visits would give Duke just enough exercise and plenty of people to give him the attention he loved.
Because most dog trainers used treats in their training programs and Duke was on a very restricted diet, Shiloh undertook the training herself. She downloaded the requirements to get Duke certified, and they worked faithfully to achieve the necessary obedience levels. Duke was an eager student and in no time he was ready to become a therapy dog. “I had heard about Love on a Leash,” said Shiloh, “so that was the group I wanted us to join.”
Duke did well in his ten required supervised visits and soon he and Shiloh were a full-fledged therapy team and doing several visits per week. “We visited at the VA Hospital, a Paws to Read program at our local library, and Duke’s personal favorite, The Arc, a center for adults with mental handicaps. Everywhere Duke went his gentleness and happy personality won him friends.” Sometimes Duke would encounter resistance just because he was a Rottweiler, a breed that is often dismissed as aggressive. On one occasion he and Shiloh were visiting at the VA. “We approached a patient and he said that he didn’t like Rottweilers. I said okay, sat down nearby, and began talking to him with Duke lying calmly on the floor. Soon, without even realizing it, the man began patting Duke.”
At the vet clinic where Duke had become a favorite, there was one tech who was afraid of him and would run out of the room when Duke came in. However, one day she was assisting the vet and when Duke entered the room, she had no choice but to stay. Within only a few minutes, she fell under Duke’s spell and became yet another one of his many fans. “Duke was always at ease in the vet’s office. He didn’t care if you were giving him a shot. It was attention, and that’s what he wanted.”
Duke loved his therapy visits and even when he was not feeling well, he was eager to go. Because of his health problems, Duke was thin and sometimes patients they were visiting would ask Shiloh why Duke seemed underweight. “In those cases I would explain about his health problems.” One day a paralyzed vet at the VA asked Shiloh about Duke and after she explained why he was thin, the man leaned down, cradled Duke’s head and said, “I’m sick, too. We can be sick together.” Then he looked at Shiloh and said, “I hope you will keep coming to visit.”
On another visit, when Shiloh and Duke were part of a group of visiting therapy dogs, a patient was asked if he’d like to see the therapy dogs. “I guess not,” he said. “I’m blind.” Immediately he was asked if he’d like to touch the dogs. The patient smiled and said he would very much like to. Duke stood beside the man who then patted him and explored Duke’s body with his hands. “Oh, he’s so beautiful,” he told Shiloh.
Finally, Duke’s medical problems proved to be too much and at just over two years old, the vet told Shiloh that Duke was terminal. “I was determined his last months would be happy ones and since he loved people and loved his therapy visits, that’s what we concentrated on.” Then, on New Year’s Eve and just shy of his third birthday, Duke crossed the Rainbow Bridge. But, his send off was special. At the vet’s office the doctors and staff came in to say good-bye; even staff members who were not working that day came in to give Duke a last cuddle and pat. Amidst that outpouring of love, the most memorable and encouraging part came from Dr. Martin, Duke’s beloved vet, who told Shiloh, “I think you know how special Duke is, but you don’t really know how special he was to so many other people.”
“Although caring for Duke, doing our therapy visits three times per week, and maintaining a full time job with the sheriff’s department was a struggle, I wouldn’t have missed it. Every time we finished a visit, I always took away something special.”
Today, while Shiloh is not ready for another dog, she has an arrangement with her brother who has a German Shepherd that is retired from the sheriff’s department. “He really was a bit too sweet natured for police work,” Shiloh said, “so I am training him for therapy work. He will live with my brother’s family, but I’ll be able to continue in pet therapy and have the time I need to recover emotionally and financially.”
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