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Did you smile at me?

Buddy Ascari, Cheri Savage's German Shepherd

By: Cheri Savage

I heard the motor scooter before I could see it. Cheri was home from work, early for a Tuesday. This happened twice a month. She parked her scooter, goes inside to get her uniform and mine, some special leashes for me, treats, and loads me into my van. Off we drove to Oak Park, a modest size public park close to the hospital where we volunteered. Together we walked around the park so I can sniff, pee, poop and stretch my legs before starting work.

Purebred dogs are bred for a purpose whether it is to hunt foxes, guide people through the wilderness, or herd cattle or sheep. There are official American Kennel Club dog breed groups and the German Shepherd Dog (GSD) belongs to the herding group. The herding group is one of the distinct dog group classifications. All purebred dogs are developed for a specific purpose which coincides with a specific group designation. The GSD is no different. This breed is known for their intelligence, loyalty and working drive. They are not lazy dogs; they relish a job and are deeply attached to their purpose in life. Shepherds need a job.

My job was working in a hospital. I was a pet therapist. Cheri told me I was the youngest volunteer therapy dog at our local hospital. Yep, at 12 months old, I passed the canine good citizen test, and got certified as a therapy dog to help make people happy.

Cheri was my hand-picked assistant. She made sure I was sparkling clean, brushed and perky before every visit. We wore special uniforms and had our own picture ID badges issued by the hospital. I even had several colorful bandanas made by my grandparent, Nancy, that I wore as part of my uniform. We were a team and we were really proud of the important work we did every day we visited patients and other hospital visitors. There is a group of other pet therapy volunteers and we were part of this organization. In the hospital I felt extra special. I could go almost anywhere except the surgery rooms and the emergency center. The hospital can be a very scary place for most everyone. Once inside those doors your senses are impacted by strange noises, incredibly unusual smells, visual distractions, and scores of nervous, quiet, afraid people milling around.

I was the only GSD in the local program and among the largest dogs working inside the hospital. In fact, size was an issue as people wanted me to hop onto their bed and snuggle next to them. This was next to impossible because I was basically as big as the bed and certainly too heavy to cuddle next to a fragile patient. Instead, I would sit close to the edge of the bed, within petting distance.

It was with a great sense of pride and purpose that we strolled down the corridors popping into guest rooms and waiting rooms as people stared in disbelief as a huge, gorgeous shepherd walked in to make them smile. A usual visit would find us walking through two to three floor corridors, moving in and out of patient rooms where I did a whole program of tricks. My specialty tricks included: find the treat, possum, speak on command (I have a special low volume hospital growl), or no speak, balancing the treat on my nose, etc. Cheri would talk with the patient telling stories about my training and/or asking them questions about the dogs in their lives. The goal was to get the patient to focus on positive things, happy memories both past and present, instead of their current situation.

We accomplished this more times than not which earned us a big smile and thank you for our short visits. It was exhilarating to walk the hospital corridors and care centers. We earned two special volunteer pins for our service time. It was not until I was 12 years old, and old age caught up with me, that we had to stop our visits. I was not able to manage walking the slick tile floors because my rear legs and back are very weak.

Did I see you at the hospital? I hope not, but I guarantee that if our paths crossed, I know I left you with a smile on your face and fewer worries on your mind.

Cheri Savage is the Director of Investments at the Santa Barbara Foundation and has 20 years of nonprofit investment and accounting experience at the foundation.

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