I finally received the call. My therapy-dog mentor was on the line, ready to give me my first assignment. “Jill, I’m hoping that you’ll consider taking a difficult assignment. It’s for a long term care-home in a tough, low-income neighborhood. These people really need to have a therapy dog in their facility, and I’m having a difficult time filling this position. Will you do it?”
I looked down at my dog, Sunshine. She looked up at me, her tail wagging. I didn’t hesitate. “Yes,” I said. “We’ll do it.”
Three years before that fateful phone call, Sunshine was found outside the city pound one cold morning. Her eyes were swollen shut from infection. When a dog rescue was notified that a beautiful Golden Retriever was on death row, they came to pick her up and take her to a veterinarian for surgery. One of the rescue volunteers told me, “Sunshine never stopped wagging her tail. She knew we were there to help her.”
I had called the rescue looking for a dog, and that’s when I heard about Sunshine. When we went to the rescue to see her, she ran to my husband and sat down beside him. He looked up at me and smiled. “I guess she’s coming home with us!” After all she had been through – being abandoned and suffering – Sunshine was eager to forgive and move forward.
When Sunshine and I started our therapy-dog sessions, I soon discovered that walking with her through the halls of the long-term-care facility was like being in the presence of a movie star. The residents adored her, and she reciprocated. Once, when we were leaving, a caregiver came up to me with a lady in a wheelchair and asked if we could visit. The lady saw Sunshine, and her eyes lit up. With her hands shaking, she cupped Sunshine’s head and began to whisper to her. The caregiver was stunned. “Amazing,” she said. “Ethel hasn’t spoken to anyone in years.” Yet, we could distinctly hear her telling Sunshine how lovely she was.
Beautiful miracles like that happened all the time. One instanced occurred with a new arrival at the home, a gentleman who was once a farmer. When he saw Sunshine, tears started to roll down his cheeks. “You don’t know what this means to me,” he said. “I never thought I would see a dog again.” He then began to reminisce about the dogs he had in the past. As we were leaving his wife mouthed a tearful “thank you.”
The residents wanted to give back, too. The majority of them had very little—they lived in a home with the barest of amenities. But these people would save sandwiches or cookies from their plates and offer them to Sunshine. One resident in particular tried to give me a quarter to “help pay for Sunshine’s food.” It touched me deeply. Perhaps these folks didn’t have a lot, but they wanted to give what they could because they were so appreciative that we visited them.
We were also assigned to the Alzheimer/dementia floor in the long-term care facility, and this is where I witnessed Sunshine’s forgiveness once again. A gentleman was patting her and humming to her. Suddenly, he struck her hard across her face. I was absolutely horrified and pulled Sunshine away, but she had other ideas. Calmly, she walked back over to the man and placed her head on his lap. He continued to stroke her head and hum. That was the power of Sunshine. She quickly forgave whatever horror befell her, whether it was being abandoned at the pound, blind and alone, or being hit by a stranger.
We volunteered for six years until Sunshine started to have difficulties with arthritis. I often think of the power of her love for humankind. She had been neglected and abandoned in her past, yet continued to give unconditional love and affection to everyone she met. Sunshine’s lesson of forgiveness and her willingness to connect had a lasting impact on so many lives, especially mine.
» Excerpted from Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog. Check out the newest heart-warming book in the series, Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Magic of Dogs.
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