My wife Steph recently lost a valued colleague and cherished friend. Her name was Ivy, and she’d spent the last year and a half of her life working at the Children’s Home of Poughkeepsie, an institution that cares for kids and teenagers in the foster care system, most of whom have seen and lived through unspeakable things.
Ivy was a golden retriever, a service dog. Selected for her mellow and loyal character, she’d gone through two years of specialty training with the Educated Canines Assisting with Disabilities (ECAD) charity in Dobbs Ferry, which teaches at-risk teens to train service dogs. The furry friends are then usually donated to disabled veterans. Ivy spent the next eight years serving a veteran with severe post-traumatic stress disorder; she would soothe the soldier’s frayed nerves when she had an anxiety attack and do everything from transferring clothes from the washer to the dryer to bringing food and drink from the fridge. When the veteran passed away, ECAD donated Ivy to the Children’s Home to serve as a facility dog, assigned to all the residents.
Every day, she bounded in to work, her shiny coat adorned with bows that matched her neckerchief. Her job was to provide comfort to the residents during therapy sessions. “Most of them have good reasons not to trust adults,” says Dr. David Crenshaw, the Children’s Home’s clinical director. “But her presence enabled the children to tell us things they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to.”
The kids would lay on the floor with her, and tell her their story. When they got upset, she would nudge them and lay her head in their laps or wedge it under their hand to make them pet her. She calmed them down. Her big, floppy ears were always sympathetic, her eyes free from judgment, her energy peaceful. Ivy acted as a therapist of sorts. “I consider her the best co-therapist I ever had,” says Crenshaw. The children trusted Ivy, and since she trusted Crenshaw, they trusted him by association. In group sessions, Ivy would sense which child was the most upset and sit or lay by her, making sure to establish physical contact.
By the time she got to the Children’s Home, Ivy was sick. Lyme disease had badly damaged her kidneys. She underwent dialysis a few times a week at first, and multiple times a day later on. The devoted veterinarians at the Rhinebeck Animal Hospital hadn’t expected her to live anywhere near as long as she did. They were convinced her commitment to the children kept her going. As long as there were kids in distress, she would soldier on. A week before the end, after her official retirement party on her 11th birthday, she was almost too weak to walk. But she grabbed her “Working Service Dog” vest off the hook at her handler’s home and sat by the van, adamant about going to work all the same.
On Ivy’s last day, Crenshaw and the family she lived with brought her to the vet. She was too weak to walk at all by then. They carried her inside so she wouldn’t have to suffer any longer. But in the examination room, Ivy summoned her final reserves of strength. She rose, then went around the room and, one by one, laid her head in each person’s lap. They had all come to comfort her, not the other way around. But Ivy was a service dog until the very end.
The Children’s Home of Poughkeepsie is accepting donations for Ivy’s Fund, which helps defray the considerable cost of caring for Ivy’s successor. Visit www.childrenshomedonations.com to help.