In Honor of Lucy…

Call it the human condition.  We often  take the ones we love most for granted.  Until she was gone, perhaps I never quite appreciated how wonderful our little dog Lucy was.  However, there are many who do – and likely will never forget the joy Lucy brought to their lives.

“Wha hoo” says Lucy, our miniature Australian Shepherd, as walked into the large gymnasium-sized room at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.  Lucy spent eight years at the direction of medical professionals to help stroke, spinal cord injury and burn injury victims as a part of an animal assisted therapy program.

When Lucy walked into a room – everyone knew it, as she announced her entrance.  I was embarrassed and worked to correct this attention-seeking behavior.  But it was an effort in futility.  Lucy’s “Wha-hoo” sparked laugher.  What could I do?   And really, why would I?  A part of her function turned out to be simply to help people to laugh, who might not have had a reason to for a long time.

Once our animal assisted therapy assignment was to help a little boy – about 12 years old – to better use his voice by calling to Lucy from the other side of the large gymnasium-sized room.  Thing is, the boy was afraid of dogs.  Why would he ever want to call a dog who he was afraid of?

I tried telling a few jokes, and told the boy Lucy likes jokes and will laugh:

Q: What do you call a joking duck?

A:  wise-quacker!

Each time I told a joke, Lucy, would howl “Wha hoo.”

The jokes didn’t make the boy laugh, but Lucy did. And within 10 minutes, Lucy somehow broke the ice…and the boy quietly began to ask Lucy to “sit” or “roll over.” He was amazed that she listened to him. Lucy knew over a dozen little tricks, from “playing dead” to jumping through hoops.

Lucy visited the Rehab Institute weekly, and each week the boy seemed to gain more confidence and have more fun. We were told, he had two photos in his room, one was Michael Jordan, then with the Chicago Bulls and another was of Lucy.

In four weeks the boy achieved the assigned goal from the medical professionals – which was to call Lucy from other side of the room.  The following week, the boy called her so often – we had to stop him; he was exhausting poor Lucy.

The week after that, the little boy wasn’t there.  My wife Robin and I were worried because sometimes, in truth, the stories don’t always have happy endings.  One of the physical therapists came up to us in tears.

We thought, ‘Oh no.”

The therapist walked right by Robin and me, and went straight to Lucy with a cookie, and said “thank you.”  She then hugged us, and tearfully told us the little boy went home much sooner than expected, She credited Lucy.

The wonders of animal assisted therapy are mind boggling but definitive. No one knows how dogs like Lucy wiggle their way into the hearts of people – adults and kids - and somehow achieve success when medical professionals cannot.

Lucy wasn’t a dog who liked to snuggle, except for when she was working– and her job was to sit next to sick child – which she would do as long as asked.

Sometimes Lucy’s animal assisted therapy successes were dramatic, sometimes more subtle.  No doubt there are families who still tell stories of the little dog who made them smile, or helped them on their way to recovery.

Lucy came to us as an 8-week-old blue-merle puppy.  Lucy was – named for Lucille Ball – so, no wonder she made people laugh.  I can’t count how many times with a group of children, I’d ask them to holler the name of a language, any language – German, Swahili, whatever…  My contention was that Lucy could speak them all.  And somehow, without any discernable cue from me, Lucy would “Wha-hoo” as they’d offer up a language.

So one child may offer Japanese, and Lucy would “Wha-hoo”.

Then another, say Australian, and Lucy would reply “Wha-hoo.”

I am telling you – I am sure I was giving her some cue, but honestly, after a time I had no idea what that was.  Lucy just knew it was time to play this game.

Lucy was euthanized May 2, just a few weeks shy of her 16th birthday.  Our veterinarian commented, “She was lucky to have you and Robin.”  Actually, we were lucky to have the little funny dog who made people laugh.

To honor our dog, the American Humane Association has created the Lucy Fund, to provide recognition and assistance to animal assisted therapy dog dogs.  American Humane is also naming an award in Lucy’s honor at the Hero Dog Awards. Please consider contributing to help all dogs who do this important work:

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Positively Expert: Steve Dale

Steve is a certified dog and cat behavior consultant, has written several books, hosts two nationally syndicated radio shows, and has appeared on numerous TV shows including "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "National Geographic Explorer," and "Pets Part of the Family." Steve’s blog is


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