Tears flow as my wife, Jean, and I think of how privileged we were to have our beautiful, gifted and gentle therapy dog, Gracie, in our lives.
That sweet, instinctive, empathetic golden Labrador – raised originally to breed puppies for the guide dog program – was born to live, love and work closely with people.
As the one who took her on walks, fed her, looked after her, and was her companion on therapy dog visits, I had a special bond with her but this bond extended to other members of the family and outwards to literally thousands of patients at hospitals, nursing home residents, children and others she helped over the years.
Gracie first came into our lives in mid-2010 when she had to be urgently rehomed. Our local vet thought of Jean and me and sent the then owner in our direction. The owner liked that we were both semi-retired, had owned a Labrador before and, most importantly, that Gracie took an instant shine to us and vice versa.
Gracie had an amazing CV. She was already half trained and, amongst other things her parents and grandparents were Australian Grand Champion Labrador retrievers.
She instantly became a member of our family. Already trained to Intermediate level, three more years of training at Canberra’s Companion Dog Club followed which saw her graduate as a Primary Companion Dog.
The director of training at the club had been watching Gracie and said she would make a great therapy dog. The woman just happened to also manage the Dogs as Therapy program.
So more training and evaluation followed, including testing her reactions to many stimuli which included being poked and prodded, shouted at and even keeping to a sit-stay command while sitting in front of a huge blueberry muffin, 30 cms from her mouth, for five minutes…amazing for a food-driven lab.
After graduation we started visiting two different nursing homes. I remember how residents used to look forward to her visits, some even crying tears of happiness, threatening to kidnap her or simply saying things like “you have made my day.”
Gracie and I joined another national therapy dog program and also did therapy dog visits through the Anglican Church after we moved to Kiama Heights, on the NSW south coast, in 2013. We joined Paws Pet Therapy in 2016, did further training and evaluation and met the amazing Sharon Stewart and other members of the team during our training. We graduated on 27 August 2016 and her graduation certificate said she was always “beautifully behaved.” We then regularly visited the Kiama Ward at Shellharbour Private Hospital, Greenwell Gardens nursing home at Nowra and Berry Private Hospital where we frequently saw little miracles occur between dog and patient.
I recall a visit to a dementia patient who had not opened her eyes or spoken to anyone in almost a year. Gracie walked past many other patients, went straight to this particular lady’s bed, licked her hand and nuzzled her with her head. The woman’s eyes then opened and, at that stage not knowing anything about her, I asked her for her name. She told me and we had a conversation for several minutes.
When I looked around I could see the doctors and nurses staring with their jaws almost on the floor. We then made arrangements for Gracie to be there when the lady’s family next visited. She had not spoken to them in many months either.
Gracie and I also did some special PAWS visits including to the NSW Ambulance Service southern NSW emergency Triple Zero Call Centre at Barrack Heights where our first assignment included a young woman paramedic who (coincidentally) had been traumatised by two incidents involving children within the first hour of that day’s shift. The paramedic had to give instructions to the children’s mothers over the ‘phone but neither child responded to treatment which hit the paramedic very hard.
The director of the centre said later she could not help smiling when she saw how Gracie had helped the young paramedic who had been smothering Gracie in cuddles.
So successful were the visits that the ambulance service, after a few months, ended up getting its own specially trained Labrador to minister to the centre’s staff.
Gracie also helped a family in Kiama where two children aged four and two were traumatised after the four-year-old saw his mother attacked by a dog. The mother decided to contact Paws Pet Therapy after the boy almost rode his tricycle in front of a truck to avoid a dog coming towards him.
I subsequently made eight visits to the family which included teaching the children what to do if a savage dog approached them in future and generally how to behave around dogs. Eventually those children came to look forward to seeing Gracie and even took her on walks. Their mother was very pleased with the outcomes.
It is these little miracles we often see our dogs perform that make our volunteer work so rewarding. Gracie was always tuned in to people, including her own family, and made it her role in life to lift people’s spirits when they were down.
Even when our eight-year-old granddaughter, Abbie, came to our home for a sleepover, Gracie would often sleep on the floor outside the little girl’s bedroom, to keep a nightly vigil over her.
Our beautiful Gracie developed bladder cancer in mid-2020 and had major surgery which included removal of one kidney. She survived for another three months and we gave her palliative care at home. Gracie departed this life for heaven on 10 November 2020, a few weeks short of her 12th birthday.
Jean and I were with Gracie until she drew her final breaths and our grandchildren and their parents said goodbye to her the afternoon before her death.
A couple of days later Abbie and her family joined us for a little ceremony in my back garden where we planted a tree in remembrance of Gracie. Abbie decorated a big rock and painted Gracie’s name on it in gold. She was inconsolable when her best doggy friend died. We planted a mandarin tree so Gracie will continue bearing fruit as she did during her beautiful life.
While waiting for the vet a few days before her death, Gracie helped a little dog in the vet surgery which was shaking uncontrollably. The owner said the dog was a “rescue” and suffered from anxiety.
When Gracie approached the little dog she sniffed it, nuzzled it and the shaking stopped. Gracie could not avoid helping even though she was close to death herself.
Gracie’s death was like losing a part of ourselves for Jean and me.
There is often a particularly special dog in many dog-owners’ lives. Without doubt Gracie, with her loyal, gentle, intuitive, outgoing, discerning, loving nature was that special girl in our lives. We will never forget her.
I believe animals go to heaven and Gracie’s spirit was welcomed there with open arms. After I leave this world I expect to be reunited with my special girl. That helps sustain me.
Many thanks to PAWS Pet Therapy for believing in Gracie and me and for giving me the opportunity to let Gracie help so many people and thanks to Sharon and the team for the beautiful flowers which we used at the tree-planting ceremony.
Till we meet again Gracie
Volunteer - Paws Pet Therapy
10th November 2020