A True Non-Shaggy Dog Story: Confessions of a Medical Canine

by Steve Heilig, March 10, 2010

By Buddy, as told by Steve Heilig.

Yes, I am a dog — a purebred one, if you must know. That's actually a handicap. I am here to confess that for a time I “practiced medicine” — or healing, at least — without a license. I do have a dog license, of course, but my training for clinical work is… well, nonexistent, really. I’m just a dog, but that seemed to be enough for many ailing people.

One of my human family members had seen other dogs in action in healthcare settings, and seemed to think I’d be good at it too. There is training, or at least screening, for this sort of work but we figured I could fake it well enough. I’m cleaner than some of the humans in those places, in any event. Smarter, too, although I'm not suppose to disclose that. So, knowing that if you fake it well enough you are half­way in the door (even at the White House, it seems), he took me to work at a San Francisco hospital — never mind which one — and I got to visit sick kids.

There’s a reason one of the first words many little humans utter is “doggy!” I would trot into a ward or room where the ailing kids were and relative pande­monium — the joyful kind — would ensue. Kids who had not smiled or spoken in some time would light up like bulbs. My tongue and tail might make more con­tact with them than their parents or some staff might prefer, but that couldn’t really be helped. I’m not bragging when I say that most kids loved it, and could not wait for me — or one of my colleagues — to get back there. Most of the nurses and other staff seemed to concur.

I also went to a couple of hospices. This was a tough crowd too, but I used the same approach. Some of the patients, usually older folks, were on heavy medication and had not responded to much stimulus lately. I had to use my expert nose/tongue/tail tech­nique on them too, and more than a few times, they would open their eyes and we’d see a flash of a smile — maybe the first in some time. I’ve been called a “permanent puppy,” but when it comes to a good goofy dog of any age, many humans are always kids.

A true story: A renowned UCSF surgeon once recalled that when he was in medical school many decades ago, his parents called to tell him that their beloved family dog was dying and that “his time had come.” The student demurred, asking them to wait a couple weeks until his exams were done and he could say goodbye. They did so, but when he got home, and saw the suffering of his pup, he realized he had been selfish and vowed to never again make man or beast “wait” for his own purposes. The now-senior surgeon had tears in his eyes when he recalled that long-ago lesson. So I suspect that dog’s wait was not wholly in vain, and that lesson resulted in much less human suf­fering than might have been the case otherwise.

Thus, we can teach in many ways. Reports have shown that we dogs can improve productivity and morale in workplaces, in courthouses, schools, and senior homes. Well, “duh,” as a teenaged human might opine. Of course many of us help blind or deaf people, and others who have trouble with mobility too. Some of us might be able to sniff out cancer! We rescue people in emergencies and on battlefields, find lost folks, try to help keep airliners safe and so forth. We might even be the best presence there is for kids with conditions like autism, and some of us help out in classrooms and prisons. So you never know what we might show you. As America’s greatest poet, Walt Whitman — who was even shaggier than me, by the way — noted, “I contain multitudes.” He must have known a good dog or three.

I’m twelve years old and retired from formal prac­tice now, but try to help where I might. It was nice to be able to use my popularity for a good cause. As a new book has it, “Every dog is a therapy dog.” Now, even I admit that’s pushing things, but I do try to set a good example, keeping in mind the wise human adage, “Lord, help me to be the person my dog believes me to be.” Or, as one of my pals says, just spell “dog” backwards.

One last thing — are you planning to eat the rest of that sandwich?

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