"Wha hoo," said Lucy, our miniature Australian Shepherd, as she walked into the gymnasium-sized room at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Lucy spent eight years at RIC, under the direction of medical professionals, helping stroke, spinal cord injury and burn victims in an animal-assisted therapy program.
When Lucy entered a room, everyone knew it, as she announced her arrival. I was embarrassed and worked to correct this attention-seeking behavior but it was futile. Lucy's "Wha-hoo" sparked laugher. What could I do?
Once our therapy assignment was to help a boy, about 12 years old, to better use his voice by calling Lucy from the other side of the huge room. Thing was, the boy was afraid of dogs.
I tried telling a few jokes, and told the boy Lucy liked jokes and would laugh.
Question: Why shouldn't you tell a secret to pigs?
Answer: Because pigs are squealers.
Each time I told a joke, Lucy would howl, "Wha hoo!"
The jokes didn't make the boy laugh, but Lucy did. Within 10 minutes, Lucy somehow broke the ice and the boy started asking ask her to "sit" or "roll over." He was amazed that she listened to him. Lucy knew over a dozen tricks, from "playing dead" to jumping through hoops.
Lucy visited the Rehab Institute weekly, and each time the boy seemed to gain more confidence and have more fun. We were told he had two photos in his room, one of Michael Jordan, then with the Chicago Bulls, and another of Lucy.
In four weeks, the boy achieved the assigned goal from the medical professionals: to call Lucy from other side of the room. The following week, the boy called her so often that we had to stop him; he was exhausting poor Lucy.
The week after that, the little boy was gone. My wife, Robin, and I were worried because sometimes, the stories of patients don't always have happy endings. One of the physical therapists came up to us in tears.
We thought, "Oh no." She walked right by us, going straight to Lucy with a cookie and saying, "thank you." She then hugged us, tearfully explaining that the boy had gone home much sooner than expected. She credited Lucy.
The wonders of animal-assisted therapy are mind-boggling but definitive. No one knows how dogs like Lucy wiggle their way into the hearts of people and somehow achieve success when medical professionals cannot.
Lucy wasn't a dog who liked to snuggle, except when she was working and her job was to sit next to sick child. She would do so as long as asked (and given an occasional treat).
Sometimes, Lucy's animal-assisted therapy successes were dramatic, sometimes more subtle. No doubt, there are families who still tell stories about the little dog who made them smile, or helped them on their way to recovery.
I originally wanted a bigger dog, "a man's dog" like a Lab mix from a shelter, or an Australian shepherd or greyhound. My wife wanted a lap-sized dog. She'd grown up with a Pekingese, but would consider a Shih-Tzu, or even a Chihuahua-mix. At a rare breed dog show, we saw a miniature Australian shepherd (also called North American shepherd), then a new breed. We instantly realized I could get my Aussie and Robin could get her small dog.
Lucy came to us as an 8-week-old blue merle puppy. She was beautiful and we quickly learned, dramatic and emotional. We found that out when a door closed on then tiny Lucy, hitting her in the rear end, which couldn't have hurt her but was a surprise. She began to limp. Well, the door had hit her in her hindquarters, not her front right leg, which she was holding up. As a puppy, she learned to over-dramatize for attention.
Above all, Lucy — named for Lucille Ball — made people laugh. I can't count how many times, with groups of children, I'd asked them to holler out the name of a language (German, Spanish, etc.). My contention was that Lucy could speak them all. And somehow, without any discernable cue from me, Lucy would "Wha-hoo" as the kids called out. The children always laughed but never could figure out how Lucy did it. Neither could I.
Lucy was euthanized May 2, just a few weeks shy of her 16th birthday. Our veterinarian commented, "She was lucky to have you and Robin."
Actually, we were lucky to have this funny little dog who made people laugh.
The American Humane Assn. has created the Lucy Fund, to provide recognition and assistance to animal-assisted therapy dogs. American Humane will also name an award in Lucy's honor at the Hero Dog Awards Oct. 11 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles. Please consider making a contribution to American Humane to help all dogs who do this important work: http://blog.herodogawards.org/2011/05/03/lucy-animal-assisted-therapy-dog/ or http://www.americanhumane.org.