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A box of Kleenex sat beside him. He stroked her soft white head, dabbed his eyes, and apologized. “I’m sorry,” he said. “That’s okay,” I replied. I planned to sit there as long as he needed the fluffy comfort of my Therapy Dog and she appeared to be willing as well. I didn’t know his story. I didn’t feel it right to ask. I just knew this dog was fulfilling her mission of compassion.

She never talked. She just smiled, reached for the dog, and caressed her flat ears. When I’d first started visiting the center, I looked for people who were excited and extraverted; those who gave affirming feedback to my efforts. I learned quickly that the ones in the corner, perhaps even looking half-asleep, might be just as interested, just as in need, and just as responsive – in their own way.

He never said much. He just moved towards her in his wheelchair whenever he saw us coming. My Taffy dog seemed to understand his non-verbals and made her way towards him. He bent over and pressed his face against hers. It was as though they had their own conversation. I stood quietly and let it happen.

“She’s white! She’s white! My dog was white!” Tears edged out of the woman’s eyes. “Oh how I miss my dog. She’s white.” The tears were bittersweet. Sadness and joy. Taffy stood for a while, and then sat down patiently to accept the ongoing firm and friendly petting. “She’s white!”

I heard the shrieking first. Then I saw its source: crumpled little woman gesturing wildly. Taffy was not to lick people, but what was I suppose to do when some of these people delighted in such affection? “She kissed me!” Taffy was unperturbed by the uncontrolled motion. It almost seemed this stocky thick-furred dog related best in such situations.

“She likes me!” The troubled teenager got down on his knees and enveloped her in a hug. “Can she stay here?” We stayed. I assured him that indeed this dog did like him. Finally I had to leave. I gave the young man Taffy’s business card with her picture and bio that read:

English Cream Retriever. Hobbies – exploring open spaces, rescuing fruit that kids toss out of their lunches, and playing with her stuffed animals. Taffy has been a registered Therapy Dog since 2015. She volunteers at a nursing home and a healthcare center, and has even been at Denver International Airport. She endears herself to people by “talking” and teasing.

I never planned on having a Therapy Dog. My husband and I had planned to purchase a modest-sized RV and volunteer with Mennonite Disaster Service by following the aftermath of floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes. Then he died.

I never planned on Taffy being a Therapy Dog. She was the high-spirited, strong-willed pup who flunked Puppy School. But, little by little, she passed her off-leash work, Canine Good Citizen Basic and Advanced, and the evaluation and certification for Pet Partners.

I believe that just as humans are created by their Maker for a purpose, dogs are created by their Maker for a purpose, too: herding, retrieving, guarding, serving, sensing illnesses and distress, alerting, cuddling, hunting, sniffing for bomb threats or avalanche victims. I have a purpose. Taffy has a purpose.

“… on the sixth day, God created animals…….And God saw it was good…(Genesis 1)

(First published in the (Kansas) Country Register, February/March 2018)

Text and photo @Naomi Gaede Penner