A Dandy Pal: A Volunteer Remembers

by Mary Jane Checchi

Dandy was an oversized sable and white collie, regal in appearance and manner. He was three years old when we adopted him from a rescue league and about eight years old when he and I joined PAL.

Dandy knew he was impressive; when we made our PAL visits, he graciously permitted strangers to admire him. With a stoic, slightly distant expression, he stood or sat while his fans stroked and patted him. He seemed to be saying, "This is really for your benefit, you know – but it's okay by me, too." He didn't let on how much he liked the attention.

Dandy was a bit lazy. Given half a chance, he would lie down on a cool tile floor, which required his admirers to stoop to be able to pat him. A surprising number of people were willing to do this.

During the years that we made PAL visits, we settled on a fairly steady routine of going to the Northwest Home on Wisconsin Avenue and the Psychiatric Ward at George Washington Hospital. At the Northwest Home, our group would travel from floor to floor. In keeping with his energy-saving ethic, Dandy preferred the elevator to the stairs.

Invariably, residents recognized his breed. Many of them told me stories about growing up on a farm or in a rural area with Shep, Laddie, Lassie or Prince, describing a collie just like mine.

The visits to GW were my favorites. The ward was locked, but this was not off-putting. There was nothing frightening about being there. Patients, PAL people and dogs would assemble in a large, windowed room. Because the ward was on an upper floor, the windows offered a wonderful city view. I think that we averaged as many as a dozen canine visitors, mostly regulars, in various sizes, colors, shapes and hair-dos.

Some patients were silent and withdrawn, a few talked only to each other, but most wanted to talk to the dogs or talk to us about the dogs – some eagerly, some shyly. Many of the patients were heartbreakingly young. One could not help but wonder what had brought them here; their problems were not manifested in their behavior while we were with them.

After our hour was over, the patients would leave the room and our PAL group would begin to straggle out. After some of our visits, one of the ward's psychiatrists would join us for a chat, giving us welcome feedback.

One day, the doctor commented, "The patient who was playing with the collie – he is here on a suicide watch. He spent the entire morning in tears and hasn't spoken to anyone since he arrived here last week. Today with the dog – that was the first time I saw him smile." The young man had sat on the floor with Dandy for more than half an hour, hugging, patting and whispering to him.

That moment captured vividly what PAL means to me. With PAL we can't fix all the world's problems and we can't even repair life for one despairing, deeply depressed young man. But to be able to bring a moment of joy and peace to a stranger: what a gift, a gift to me that makes me so grateful to PAL and to Dandy.

(Dandy retired from his visits two years ago because of problems with his legs and died a year later. We recently adopted another collie from the same rescue league who – after he grows up and calms down – we hope will become a PAL volunteer.)