Small Miracles and the Human-Canine Bond

An old man, an old dog, a small miracle.

Posted Dec 19, 2009

Image from Dennis Coren
Source: Image from Dennis Coren

      Today I learned about a small miracle which involved my father and a dog named Charlie. I am not a particularly religious person, although I do consider myself to be spiritual in that I believe that there is a God. However, because I am a scientist I tend to be skeptical about miracles and such. Nonetheless, because as a psychologist I have spent so many years studying the human-canine bond and have seen the apparently amazing effects that a dog can have on a person, perhaps I am less skeptical than I used to be.

     At the time that I am writing this my father, Ben, is 92 years of age and is nearing the end of his stay with us. My father and mother survived some hard financial times but still had a happy marriage which lasted over 50 years. They managed to raise three sons and helped to put them through college and sent us out to lead successful, stable and pleasant lives. Our house was never a menagerie, but there was always a dog around and sometimes cats. Although when we boys lived in the house the dog supposedly belonged to us, my parents were clearly bonded to them as well. When we left to go out on our own, the parade of dogs continued in my parent's home, and these dogs were always present in family pictures, and were often the source of conversation and amusement.

     My father was an intelligent, sociable and physically strong man. His courage and resilience were confirmed by the various medals that he earned during World War II, as well as the way that he handled the various crises that assaulted our family life. He and my mother had a large circle of friends, and were active in many charitable, educational, social, and veteran's organizations. People liked both of my parents and they made friends easily and were often called upon to assist in many projects and events designed to help the community.

     As my parents grew older they grew more physically frail and found it more difficult to deal with the exuberant and active nature of the Schnauzers that they had come to love. When they lost their last Schnauzer they changed to a breed that was much softer. They did not want to go through the vagaries and work of raising a puppy, so I gave them a seven year old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, named Amy. She immediately integrated into the family and quickly became the focus of much of their affection. Not only did they buy her a rhinestone studded collar, but they had numerous pictures taken of her, and some images of her were even printed on note papers that they used to write letters. I think that many of the happiest times that my parents had came when they got to take Amy over to my brother Dennis's home to "babysit" with his dog Charlie who was the same breed as Amy. While Dennis and his family was away on vacation my parents treasured being able to watch Charlie and Amy play and interact, and my mailbox would soon be filled with dozens of pictures of them out with the dogs or the dogs playing together.

     Amy was pampered and loved, and when my mother died, she became my father's psychological lifeline. He took her to work with him, and she travelled on a modified car seat when he went anywhere. Few conversations with Dad could go on for very long without her name being mentioned.

     When Amy died my father became sufficiently despondent and depressed so that my brother Dennis (the only one the three sons still residing in Philadelphia) became quite concerned. Responding to this situation, I quickly found another adult Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, this one named Spirit, and when she arrived she caused one of those small miraculous psychological changes-namely my father's depression disappeared, virtually overnight. Spirit now filled the emotional void and my father began to function normally again. He renewed his social life and other activities, including visits to see Charlie so that now my mailbox had pictures of Charlie and Spirit romping together.

     My father lived happily with Spirit for around four years, and then a series of events changed everything. The company where my father worked closed. Shortly thereafter he suffered injuries from several accidental falls and it became difficult for him to live alone in his house. Eventually his physical condition made it necessary for him to leave the family home and move to an assisted living situation. Unfortunately Spirit could not be with him, and shortly thereafter she died. My father insisted that she died of a broken heart because he had left her.

     Along with my father's declining physical condition, he began to show signs of dementia. His memory began to weaken, and soon he was having difficulty remembering people. Nonetheless, my brother Dennis and his wife Terry continued to give him support and tried to keep him integrated as a member of the family. Each week they would come to visit, or take him on outings or to family affairs and parties. The fact that he no longer remembered who they were was distressing, but loyalty and love sustained their efforts. My daughter Rebecca also visited whenever she could, bringing him some ice cream (which he always appreciated) and one or more of her children to say hello. He did not recognize her or his great grandchildren but Rebecca had always adored him so she continued to visit.

     Last week I spoke with Dennis on the phone. He told me that our father was just returning from the hospital. He had been put there because he was refusing to eat or to take his medications. It was the doctor's intention to forcibly administer food and medication to keep him alive. Dennis reminded them that my father had left specific instructions that that was not to be done and that he should not be forced to suffer the pain and indignity of procedures that he did not want so late in his life. So instead they set up the room that he normally lived in as a hospice, with extra care, and returned my father to it. He still would not eat or drink and seemed to be emotionally unresponsive to what was going on around him.

     This kind of "shutting down" is common with advanced age and a failing body. Among the many dogs I have owned, the most significant sign that they were near the end was often their refusing food or fluid and it is the same with humans. My daughter Rebecca would not accept this. She phoned me and tried to tell me that if Dad only felt that he was still loved he would start to eat and drink again. I tried to explain to her what was happening but she was sure that she was right and insisted that I didn't understand the situation. She felt that if only something could get through to him, some positive feelings, he would respond.

     Perhaps she was correct. My brother, Dennis, does not give up. He knew how much my father had loved his dog, Charlie, and loved to bring Amy and Spirit to play with him. Charlie is now quite old. His senses are dim, and he moves slowly, but he is still Charlie. In dog year equivalents, Charlie is also in his nineties. Still Dennis decided that Charlie and my father should get a chance to see each other again.

     Yesterday I received an email from Dennis along with an attached photo. It read (with only some slight edits):

 "I thought you might enjoy this moment. I took this picture today of Dad and Charlie, the two senior members of the Coren family. Apparently, they give comfort to each other.
"Dad perked up when the dog arrived and did not stop petting him until we left an hour later. As you can see, he was happy to see the dog.
"I got him to eat and drink a little with the promise that I would bring Charlie back to visit on Saturday."

     The fact that my father actually ate and drank is a significant improvement and something the medical staff was not capable of bringing about. I have no illusions that this small victory will reverse the ravages of time or add significantly to the length of time that my father has to live. Still the fact that he took a bit food and fluid suggests that, at least for that moment, while petting a familiar and loved dog there was still a reason to live.

     My brother Dennis is not a psychologist, but he had remembered something that I with all of my behavioral training had forgotten in this moment of family crisis. Sometimes God hangs small miracles on the collar of a dog.

     Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

     Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.

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