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Andrew Watch

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Who knows why certain dogs catch our hearts, but there was something about Sam that drew me in. There are so many words to describe him: rescue, lab cross, mud puddle lover, gentle giant, brave, George Clooney handsome, blind, therapy dog, but more than anything he was the most amazing best friend that I could ever have hoped for.

In June, 2008, a good Samaritan spotted a black and tan dog on the shoulder of a busy road on the South Shore of Montreal. When he stopped, the dog wisely jumped in his car and he was brought to a grassroots animal rescue. This lost boy was cured of fleas and worms, and the owner set out to find him a forever family. A month later, I saw a photo of Sam on the rescue website and was drawn to him.

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From the start, I knew that there was something special about Sam. Although Sam was playful and liked nothing better than wrestling and getting into trouble with his best canine friends, he also excelled at obedience. He was so calm when he met other dogs and people, so responsive to those in need. If he met someone who was having a bad day, he would just lean into them and provide a steadying grounding force. Having worked in health care all my career, I am a strong believer in the role of dogs in the healing process but, of course, not every dog is cut out to visit with patients in the hospital. I truly felt that Sam had what was needed to be a therapy dog.

Sam passed his Ottawa Therapy Dog evaluation with flying colours. He was only challenged by a delicious sandwich left on the floor, but how could a lab/hound not sniff that out?

We were matched to the Mental Health Unit at Montfort Hospital in Ottawa. From the first patient Sam worked with, I realized he would be the most wonderful therapy dog. His empathy for the patients was enviable, Sam would change his approach for each person giving them what they needed, and he had an innate gift to connect with people unable to communicate with other humans. The staff loved him, he was part of the health-care team. He could reach a place in people’s soul that no health professional could ever reach.

For six years, he visited the hospital every week. Once Sam was working with a woman who was very lonely and just kept saying she needed a hug. With no prompting from me, Sam put his head between her knees and wrapped his leg around her calf, giving her the hug she so desired. Another time, he was visiting with a deaf woman frustrated that interpretation services were not always available. She lay down on the floor next to Sam and covered her eyes as the tears flowed. Sam gently used his nose to push her hands away and put his paw gently on her shoulder creating a connection that went way beyond the spoken word. When psychiatrists prescribed Sam for a young woman who was withdrawn and non-verbal, it seemed like he couldn’t help. During their first visit, she would not even touch Sam, but he waited patiently as a steady presence. During the second visit, she stroked his ever-so-soft ears. With each visit, her confidence grew. After five weeks, when she saw Sam arrive, she shouted his name, ran down the hall and hugged him with all her might. The young woman’s mother shed tears of joy, she had never seen her daughter connect to another living being in the same way.

Sam excelled as a therapy dog, I think, in part because he had lost his sight to progressive retinal atrophy. All that he saw in people, he saw with his heart, not with his eyes.

Sam had many health challenges and for the last year of his life, he faced cancer. His vet not only treated Sam’s health concerns, but she cared for his heart and soul, and in doing so, cared for mine. Sam lived the last year of his life doing what he loved best; visiting the family farm, bringing joy as a therapy dog, lying in the snow, working out on the water treadmill, being massaged and being a dog.

We spent the year managing his symptoms, but more importantly celebrating life and enjoying every moment we had together. And when the time came that life was starting to become on balance more challenging for Sam as the cancer in his lungs took hold, I screwed up my courage to do right by the most amazing best friend I could have asked for and let him fall peacefully asleep in my arms surrounded by people who loved him. And while my heart shattered as I let him go, letting him go before every breath was a struggle for him is the only thing that may one day allow my heart to heal.

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Sam may be physically gone, but I am committed to ensuring the lessons he taught me live on through remembering to always be generous of spirit, especially with those less fortunate; to never judge, but to treat everyone equally; to never show stigma to those challenged by mental illness; to be brave, even when faced with huge obstacles and, from time to time, have fun by splashing through a puddle or engaging in a wild turkey chase.

Marie Adèle Davis lives in Ottawa.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article spelled the name of Montfort hospital incorrectly. This version has been updated.