A Dog Softens the Heart of a Tough Old Man

August 4, 2014

Build Relationships by Sharing
Stories of Motivation and Inspiration

Number 4

Discover the qualities of friendship and share them with the people you know.


Several residents in my retirement community have dogs and a few have cats. Never see the cats, but the dogs seem to love the attention they get from other residents when they’re out for a walk.

It is interesting that studies show that when someone has an animal for which they are responsible, they tend to live longer. But what happens when an animal lover has to go into hospice and can’t take their friend with them?

Hospice Hounds by Michelle RiveraAs I was thinking about this the other day, I decided it would be a good time to share a story from a book called Hospice Hounds: Animals and Healing at the Borders of Death by Michelle Rivera. Each chapter describes the beautiful, heartwarming stories of what happened when the author would bring two dogs, Katie, an Australian shepherd, and Woody, a yellow lab, into the rooms of patients in a Florida hospice.

It is an endearing book on the softening influence dogs can have on a person’s last days, weeks and months. Fortunately, I have been given permission to print some of the stories.

Today’s story, “But You Cannot Hide,” tells of what happened when the author brought the dogs to the room of someone the nurses avoided as much as possible because he was rude to them and told them to go away. But the story, while a bit longer than I usually share, paints a most inspirational and uplifting tale.

“But You Cannot Hide”
from Hospice Hounds: Animals and Healing at the Borders of Death
by Michelle Rivera

Image courtesy of Crjs452 (Own work)
[Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

It was another stormy south Florida summer afternoon, and the western sky was a gun-metal blue. Katie, Woody, and I had not had much luck that day, the patients all either too sick to talk or not in the mood. It seems that the weather affects the dying much the same as it does those of us who are industriously moving through our day. The dark, dreary days find us sleepy and unsociable, and the bright sunny days find us with dispositions as parallel as possible under the sad circumstances of our confinement.

As a result of the weather and the prevailing somber mood, we were pretty much headed out the door when we passed a room that seemed to beckon. Without any reason or deliberation, the dogs took it upon themselves to turn into the doorway. The name on the door was “Curtis,” and I entered very quietly. I was still not sure why. At first it appeared as though the room was empty. The bed was unkempt and seemed unoccupied. But something about the shape of the dishevelment made me tentatively enter the room and take a closer look.

And, yes, the shape was human after all. An elderly black man was curled in the fetal position. He was completely covered from the very top of his head to his feet by a thin white bed sheet, topped by a lightweight mint-green blanket, all loosely wrapped about him. As I came around the side of the bed, I could see two tired, cloudy eyes peeking forlornly out from underneath this makeshift hooded sleeping bag. I spoke to Curtis, softly so as not to startle him.

“Are you cold?”

He shifted his eyes to meet mine. “No! Why?” His voice was surprisingly strong and defiant.

“Because you are all wrapped up in your bedclothes,” I pointed out. He didn’t reply and we regarded one another in silence for a moment. “You almost look as if you are hiding,” I said with a smile. He didn’t answer, so I pressed on. “Are you?”

He looked a little angry at this and I feared I had ventured too far into the private thoughts of a dying stranger. At last, it appeared he had decided to take the high road.

“Well, yes, I guess I am hiding,” he allowed. “But there is no way to hide and you can’t hide from what I got.” He sounded very bitter. Woody and Katie had been standing quietly and hadn’t moved at all. He didn’t see them. He barely saw me, peeking as he was from his shelter from the storm. Another few awkward moments went by, and I thought that I really should be leaving and give this poor man some peace. Yet, I stayed.

“So, um, Curtis?” I ventured, after a few moments. “Do you like dogs?”

He eyed me suspiciously. “Dogs?” he asked. “Now it seems to me that that’s a stupid question. I like ’em all right. What’re you asking me a thing like that for?”

With this I brought Woody and Katie into the room. “Well, Curtis,” I said. “These dogs are my partners. This is Woody, she’s a Lab, and this is Katie, an Aussie, and some people have this idea that they are going to make you feel better. Like they will be calming or therapeutic or something like that.” I looked at him expectantly. “So,” I asked hopefully. “Do you feel better?”

Curtis looked at me with disdain, and I knew at that moment that I had blown it. My feeble attempt at humor had been ill- advised and I had to admit that I was no Patch Adams. Curtis raised himself up and rearranged his blanket around him. He took a long time assembling the pillow, the blankets, situating himself in an upright position so as to better face me. I figured I was in for it. People who are dying have little time or patience for making nice-nice, and I knew that I was about to be told off in a very big way.

But Katie and Woody didn’t see it that way, and they decided that all this activity meant that someone wanted to pay them the homage that was rightfully theirs. So they pushed forward and placed their heads on the side of the bed, nudging his hand, Woody snapping playfully in the air. Curtis looked at them with a frown. “Damn, man,” he said, with a frown. “Can’t nobody get no peace in this place, anyway? I was minding my own business and now I got this white lady and these dogs and, geez already, wassup with that anyway?”

I was mortified, it was much worse than I had anticipated. I gently tugged on the leads and started to back away. “I am so sorry, sir,” I whispered. “I am really sorry. We will leave you alone and I am really sorry.”

“Just a minute,” he said. Curtis’s voice was strong and clear, but kind. “Wait a damn minute. You done got me up now, so just a second. Now you seem like a nice lady, so I am gonna tell you something, OK? Now you got these dogs here and they seem like good dogs and all. But, I want you to turn around right here and look behind you. Now go on, look on that table by the patio. Tell me what you see.” I turned around and understood at once why he accused me of asking a “stupid question.” There, on the table, were six matted and framed eight-by-ten photos of a most magnificent, majestic, and perfect German Shepherd dog. The photos seemed to follow this beautiful animal through his lifetime, from puppy- to adulthood, and it was obvious that this dog was well loved, well cared for, and part of a very lucky family. All I could say was “wow.”

I stared at the photos for a long time. I took my time and looked at each of the photos, gently picking up each frame and studying the picture, carefully replacing them one by one on the table. The first two were of the dog as a puppy, and in one photo the dog was held by a much younger Curtis. Curtis was wearing a police uniform and kneeling down, cradling the puppy with one arm, the other holding the lead aloft. He was smiling proudly. The third picture was of an older dog, wearing a vest and police insignia. The fourth and fifth photos depicted the dog wearing a 85 medal around his neck, and in one he was paired with Curtis and posed in a row of eight other human and non-human police officers, all wearing ribbons and medals. The sixth photo showed the dog sitting in a living room, surrounded by children, as if posing for a family portrait. And there was another item, also bearing a photo, albeit much smaller than the others. It was a beautiful black marble um, almost a foot high, and topped with a gold dome. I recognized it immediately—as I have the ashes of my beloved Sable in a similar vessel, though not nearly as fancy. And the photo was affixed to the urn exactly as my Sable’s was at home.

Woody had resumed her visit with Curtis, who was watching me quietly, petting Woody on her head and stroking her soft ears. Since her target was in a bed, Katie figured the belly rub would have to wait and was quickly falling asleep on the floor. I finished looking at the pictures and turned to face Curtis.

“So,” I prodded. “Who is he?”

“She’s Sgt. Shadow,” he said with pride. “And she was my partner for twelve years. So, now, you still want to tell me about dogs?” His look was one of feigned arrogance, so I bowed my head like a chastised child.

“No sir,” I said. “I think maybe you can tell me a thing or two, yes?”

Curtis laughed at this and took Woody’s face in both his hands. He was looking in her eyes, but talking to both of us. “I loved that dog, and she loved me. She would have laid down her life for me if she had to. She almost did, several times. She lived with me and my wife, but my wife never liked her. Said she was my first love and called her a bitch!”

He shouted the last word and we laughed at the obvious pun. “But of course she was!” I laughed. “So, Curtis, tell me, how did you work it out with your wife, then?”

“She learned,” he said with a satisfied nod of his head. “She learned that this dog would save my life and she knew that, without Sgt. Shadow, there would be no job for me. I was with the police force out in California for forty-two years, but the only time I really enjoyed my job was the time I spent with that dog.” Katie was in a deep sleep, having abandoned all hope of a belly rub, and Woody was leaning quietly against the bed, lazily wagging her tail in response to Curtis’s attentions.

I noticed something odd about the table display, and I just had to ask. “Curtis, there is just one thing though, I don’t see any wife pictures, only dog pictures. Wassup with that?” I said with a smile. “She left me long before that dog did, uh hub. She left out of my life and never looked back. She said she wasn’t about to share her home with any damn dog. So she left me. And me and Shadow lived in that house alone. She protected me and we went to work every day. When Shadow got too old to work, they retired her, and I left too. I went to work for a security agency and we walked around resorts and construction sites, just me and Shadow.”

At that moment I felt a heartfelt empathy and despair for this man’s loss. He had lost his best friend when his beloved Shadow passed over, and, not for the first time, I felt despair at the fact that dogs have a life span so much shorter than our own. His pain at his partner’s loss was unimaginable, such was the love he still held for her in his heart and soul.

“She died when she was thirteen. She was getting very slow, very stiff. Then one day, she looked up in my eyes and I could almost hear her say, ‘Partner, I just don’t want to do this anymore,’ and she slept the days away. Taking her to the vet to have her put to sleep was the hardest thing I ever had to do. Yes ma’am, it was.” Curtis turned his attention fully to Woody again and told her how beautiful she was. Woody looked into his eyes and wagged her tail in happiness and gratitude. Sgt. Shadow was coming to get Curtis soon, Woody was telling him, probably very soon. He couldn’t hide from that.

“I’m taking her with me,” he said softly. “I got her ashes there and I told everyone to put that urn in my casket with me. I am making sure they will.”

I made up my mind at that instant to do the very same thing one day.

“You know, I almost didn’t come in here,” I said. “You looked so annoyed and miserable and I didn’t want to intrude. But the dogs seemed to want to come in, so I followed.”

Curtis looked at me for a while, then down at Woody. He sighed heavily. “Well, I heard somewhere that some people think dogs can help sick people. Maybe it’s true, coz I still can’t hide from what I got, but I got to be with Shadow again for a time.”

“Yeah,” I agreed as I knelt to wake Katie. “That’s what dogs do: make it better for a time.”

As I left the room, a nurse was coming towards me down the hallway. She looked up and saw us coming from Curds’ room and made a face. “You didn’t go in there, did you?” she whispered. “Well, the dogs did,” I smiled. “I just followed along. Why? Was I not supposed to go in that room?” I looked at my volunteer briefing list and sure enough, Curtis’ room was not listed. “Oh, I am sorry. I do see now he’s not on the list. I hope I didn’t break any rules, did I?” “Well no,” said the nurse, looking nervously in the direction of Curtis’ door. “But he isn’t exactly our most pleasant patient and we kind of discourage the volunteers from going in there. Because, frankly, we don’t want them getting insulted or, well, abused. Was he awful to you?” I understood her fear completely.

“Well, no, not really,” I told her. “He told me about his dog… the one in the pictures. He told me about his job, his wife that left him.” “He had a wife?” the nurse asked incredulously. “Wow! How about that! He never says a word to us. Unfortunately, we kind of avoid him now because he is just so rude and always tells us to just leave him alone.” “I think, maybe you need some resident dogs here at hospice,” I told her. “There’s so much work to be done.” “Yes,” she agreed, still looking in the direction of Curtis’ room with awe. “I’ll be damned! He had a wife.”

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