Remembering Sam
How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.

There are so many words to describe Sam; 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 the man brought him to the incredible Gerdy. She took in this lost boy, cured him of his fleas and worms, and set out to find him a forever family. A month later, having lost my awesome Molly earlier that Spring, I saw a photo of Sam on Gerdy’s website and was drawn to him. Who knows why certain dogs catch our hearts, but there was something about Sam that made me bond to him even before I met him. That bond grew each and everyday we were together.

From the start, I knew that there was something special about Sam. Although Sam was playful and liked nothing better than wrestling with his girlfriend, Akewa, and getting into trouble with his best friend, Chester, he excelled at obedience and succeeded in getting his Good Canine Citizen. He was so calm when he met other dogs and people. So empathetic 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 the Monfort Hospital here in Ottawa. From the first patient that Sam worked with, I knew in my heart that he would be the most wonderful therapy dog. His empathy for the patients regardless of their diagnosis or social circumstances, his ability to change his approach for each person giving them what they needed, and his 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. There are so many stories to share of the differences he made for so many people over the 6 years he visited the hospital every week, but allow me to share.

Sam was working with a woman who was very lonely and just kept saying she needed a hug. Sam got up with no prompting from me, 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 person who was frustrated that she was living in silence while at the hospital as 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 from her eyes and then put his paw gently on her shoulder creating a connection that went way beyond the spoken word.

The psychiatrists prescribed Sam for a young woman who was very withdrawn and non-verbal. During her first visit, she would not even touch Sam, but he waited patiently, just being a steady presence. During the second visit, she stroked his ever so soft ears. With each visit her confidence grew until 5 weeks later she was in the hall with her parents when Sam arrived on the unit. Upon seeing him she shouted his name, ran down the hall and hugged him with all her might. I looked at her Mum who had tears of joy, she had never seen her daughter connect to another living being in the same way.

What makes the fact that Sam excelled as a therapy dog even more remarkable was the fact that Sam lost his sight due to progressive retinal atrophy. So all that he saw in people, he saw with his heart, not with his eyes.

Sam was so brave. He had so many health challenges that he overcame. In addition to his blindness, he had to have 2 TPLO’s, both complicated, he lost all his molars secondary to dental resorption, and for the last year of his life, he faced cancer. He had the best vet someone could ask for. She not only treated Sam’s health concerns, but she cared for his heart and soul. She supported me in my choice that Sam should live the last year of his life doing what he loved best; visiting my Mum’s farm, bringing joy as a therapy dog, lying in puddles, working out on the water treadmill and getting massages, and being a dog. Chemo and further invasive surgeries may well have meant an end to all those things he loved, and given the very low likelihood of treatment being effective, it was not in his best interest. 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 is the only thing that may one day allow my heart to heal.

Sam may be physically gone, but I am committed to ensuring his spirit lives 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 having fun by splashing through a puddle or chasing a wild turkey.

A good dog never dies. He always stays. He walks besides you on crisp autumn days when frost is on the fields and winter’s drawing near. His head is within our hand in his old way.”
― Mary Carolyn Davies