I hope you are not too proud to learn from a dog

My German friend Kirsten has been volunteering at live-in facilities for older people. She goes to visit these people with her dog “Charlie.”

Recently, Kirsten visited a woman of 87, who was lying motionless in her bed, suffering from both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. The woman had a totally blank look on her face, and did not seem to respond at all when Kirsten and Charlie entered the room.

Slowly and gently, the dog was placed on the bed next to the woman, and after being told the German equivalent of “Good girl” a few times, the dog settled in next to the woman, seemingly quite content.

Then little by little, almost as if watching a movie frame by frame, the most extraordinary change came over the woman. Very subtly her breathing softened and became more rhythmical, and the corners of her mouth started twitching, as if she was at the very beginning stages of learning how to smile again. In fits and starts, her cramped hand with her fingers drawn and stiff, began to move towards Charlie. There was a fascinating series of actions that took place in a divinely orchestrated manner. The woman’s face and mouth twitched, her hand inched forward in a lurching manner, and her fingers also twitched as they softened and opened back up. Finally after more than five minutes of effort the woman touched the dog and her hand came to rest alongside his back. At this stage the dog made a sound and a movement, like he was entering into a sleep state, at which time the woman let out a sigh of exhaustion, and upon exhaling her face became radiant with a beautiful smile. Indeed it was hard to recognize that the woman was the same person who was lying in the bed when Kirsten and Charlie had entered the room fifteen minutes earlier. The woman was not able to express herself verbally, but she had certainly expressed her feeling of contentment nonetheless! The staff at the home told Kirsten that the woman slept in great comfort once they left.

Next week, Kirsten went back to visit the woman again, but this time Charlie had little interest in laying next to the woman. So, feeling a bit disappointed, Kirsten took the woman’s hand and stroked her arm as if she was lovingly stroking her dog. As Kirsten sat there with the woman, she breathed in a deep, relaxed manner, and she rocked herself back and forth ever so much. Slowly but surely, without really thinking about it, Kirsten began to tell the woman about walking with her dog on a beautiful spring day. She talked about the sparkling sun, the smell of flowers, the radiant colors, and the wonderful feeling of inhaling cool, fresh air. Little by little, once again, a fascinating series of actions took place. The woman’s hand and face twitched, and Kirsten followed an impulse to duplicate the movements the woman’s hand and arm had made during the first visit. Finally when Kirsten rested the woman’s hand on her (Kirsten’s) stomach, once again the woman took a deep breath, her entire body relaxed, and once again a beautiful smile appeared on her face. “Oh” Kirsten thought, “Isn’t it nice to know that I can help the woman, just as well as my dog can!” She thought to herself, “It really is just a case of slowing down, opening one’s heart, and feeling into the connection we all have as living beings.” A simple yet profound truth. Such is the nature of healing – working to help people have an experience that comes before words, before thinking, before judgment. Without words, we cannot separate ourselves from others. Without thinking there is no pain. Without judgment there is no right and wrong, good and bad. When you are only here, only now, you will “only” experience your core self, and feel at peace.

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