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How One Dog’s Deafness Turned Out to Be a Blessing

What one dog did for a grieving widow was nothing short of miraculous.

Stanley Coren and dogs

I sometimes believe that God has a strange sense of humor. I certainly never expected Flint’s deafness to turn out to be a blessing. This situation started with a phone call to my university office.

“Hello, Dr. Coren,” said a pleasant female voice. “You won’t remember me, but I took your Introductory Psychology course about seven years ago. There were about three hundred people in my class so you never knew our names. Anyway, my name is Jennifer and I have a bit of a strange request. Do you still have that gray Cairn Terrier?”

I was puzzled as to where this conversation was going but acknowledged that I still had Flint.

“I remember that you brought him into class one day to demonstrate animal learning principles. Here is my problem. My grandparents, my mother’s parents, were married for 53 years and just around four weeks ago my grandpa died. The two of them had been very close—inseparable. After the funeral Grandma Alice just crawled into her bed and doesn’t talk to anyone and hardly seems to recognize anyone. A psychologist looked at her and he said something about post-traumatic stress syndrome, and then told my mom that sometimes when people have been together in a loving relationship for a long time, after one of them dies, the other one just kind of folds up and dies shortly afterward. He suggested that if we could get through to her, interest her in something or remind her of something pleasant in her past, she might ‘wake up’ again. But Mom is beginning to think that she really can’t handle Grandma acting like a zombie, and is worried that we might have to send her to some kind of home.

“When you taught us about clinical psychology, you mentioned therapy dogs and how they sometimes helped troubled people break out of their emotional or mental shells. Before my grandparents moved into their apartment they had a Cairn Terrier like yours, even the same color as yours. They loved him a lot. I was wondering if you might be willing to bring your dog over for a visit—sort of a therapy dog visit.

“If it helps at all, Mom is prepared to get her a dog.”

I am a sucker for pleas for help, especially when they involve my students or dogs, and this involved both. I did caution her, “There are no guarantees in this sort of thing. The examples that we talk about when we discuss therapy dogs in class are always the special and remarkable ones, but sometimes therapy dogs are no more successful than the casual visit of a friend or a mental health worker.”

Jennifer said that she understood but really wanted me to try. So we set up a time for the next day when I would visit her mother’s home.

At the agreed-upon time, Flint and I arrived at a modest, well-kept two-story house. Jennifer, and her mother, Norma, met us at the door. Both bent down to pat Flint, who happily wagged his tail at the attention. They then ushered me upstairs to a small bedroom at the rear of the house where a thin, frail woman, probably well into her seventies, lay partially propped up with pillows.

When we entered the room, Alice’s eyes were open, but she didn’t respond in any way. Norma spoke to her, “Mom, this is Dr. Coren, a psychologist from the university. He was one of Jennifer’s professors and he’s brought someone to meet you.” Alice did not respond.

I said, in as cheerful a voice as I could, “Hi, Alice.”

There were two dining room–style chairs against the wall and I took one and pushed it up against the bed. I patted the seat of the chair and Flint recognized the signal and jumped up to sit on the chair in the place I had indicated. “This is Flint,” I continued. “I thought that you might like to meet him. I know that he would like to meet you.”

There was no response from Alice, so I tapped the bed’s surface to encourage Flint to approach her. He took a step from the chair to the bed, and stood there, tail waving tentatively—expectantly. At that moment Alice’s eyes moved to look at him. She stared at him and slowly her head turned toward him. Then a whispery, cracked voice said, “Snuffy?”

Flint took another step toward her, and Alice uncertainly lifted her hand and swung it in his direction. Flint then stepped fully onto the bed in an attempt to draw closer to her. All the while his eyes were only on Alice. Perhaps because of her several weeks of little movement, Alice seemed to lack full coordination, and the hand that she was moving in Flint’s direction accidentally hit the metal tray on the side table. It crashed to the floor with a loud enough clang to startle everyone in the room—except for Alice, who acted as though nothing had happened, and Flint, my hearing-impaired dog.

I did not help the situation any. I made a grab for the tray when I saw it slipping off the table. In the process I tripped on the chair, which toppled over with a bang, and then I lurched into the side table, causing the lamp to topple to the floor adding to the clamor. I really believe that Flint radiated bad karma for lamps and lighting fixtures all through his life, since so many seemed to fall over in his proximity.

Flint did not even flinch at all of this commotion, but merely glanced in my direction and then continued to approach Alice. She moved her hand again, this time clearly reaching for him, repeating “Snuffy?”

Flint was now next to Alice, and he gently inched himself forward until he was actually leaning on her chest. She slowly raised her hand, touched him, and then began to pet him with slow, deliberately gentle movements. I had managed to stand up, and returned the chair to its upright position, glancing at the tray and lamp that were now on the floor. Neither Jennifer nor Norma was looking at me. Their eyes were fixed on Flint and Alice. I repeated quietly, “His name is Flint.”

The cracked whispery voice said, “You look just like our Snuffy dog. You even feel like him. David [her deceased husband] always promised me that he would get me another Snuffy someday.”

Norma stepped to the other side of the bed and asked, “Would you like me to get you another Snuffy, Mom?”

There was a pause that seemed to go on for hours, while Alice sat with her eyes on Flint as she patted him with slow hand movements. Finally, she responded in what might have been a wishful tone of voice, “Could you get me another Snuffy?”

Norma’s eyes were full of tears, “As soon as I can.” I nodded my head and silently mouthed, “Tomorrow.”

Norma glanced at me and said tentatively, “Maybe even tomorrow.”

Alice momentarily moved her eyes from Flint to her daughter and smiled a wan smile. “That would be wonderful.” She then looked back at Flint, who was contentedly resting on her, and said to him, “You could be my Snuffy, you know.”

Norma motioned to me and we stepped out of the bedroom, while Jennifer came over and sat on the edge of the bed next to her grandmother.

“This is a miracle,” she said wiping tears from her eyes. “She hadn’t said more than a dozen words since I brought her here. This is wonderful. But where can I get a Cairn Terrier as quickly as tomorrow?”

“On the off chance that Flint’s visit might be helpful, I contacted a local Cairn Terrier breeder named Glen,” I said.

I had originally met Glen when Flint had scored a rare high in class at an obedience trial. Glen had been impressed at seeing a Cairn Terrier do well in obedience, but he was quite unimpressed by Flint’s looks. “His back is too long, his ears are set too close, and his tail is set too high. Listen, for your next Cairn come to me so that people who love the breed can take pride in a Cairn doing well in obedience who is not quite so badly put together,” he told me.

I continued, “Glen told me that he has an 18-month-old gray Cairn that he was keeping as a possible show dog. However, his coat never came in quite the way that he wanted, so he was willing to sell it. That way you’ll get a dog that is a young adult and already housebroken, which should make things easier. Anyway, that is one possibility to consider since I don’t think you want the hassle of starting with a puppy for your mother.”

Norma nodded and we went back into the room. Jennifer was still sitting on the bed next to Alice. Both were petting Flint and they were murmuring something to each other. Alice looked up and nodded at us. Norma smiled and said, “Dr. Coren and Flint have to go now, but tomorrow we’ll get you a new Snuffy.”

Flint turned to look at me and I signaled for him to come. Jennifer got up and came over to me. She gave me a hug and whispered “Thank you. I think that she is back with us.”

As Flint and I sat together in the car on the way home, I started talking to him. Just because he couldn’t hear me made no difference, since he always seemed to know that I was speaking to him and he would look at my face attentively.

“You’re a good psychotherapist,” I said, glancing in his direction. “I was worried when everything started falling over and making all of that noise. I was afraid that you would get upset and ruin the mood. I suppose that it’s proved to be a blessing that you are mostly deaf, because it meant you weren’t spooked by all of that commotion.”

The old familiar voice answered me, “Yes, just call me Sigmund Cairn, the world’s greatest canine therapist. You know being deaf isn’t such a bad thing for a psychotherapist. Most of them don’t listen to what their patients say anyway.”

A month or so later I received a “thank you” note addressed to Flint and me. Inside was a photograph of Alice sitting on a large rocking chair. On her lap was a handsome gray Cairn Terrier and she was smiling warmly at it. The “thank you” note was signed Jennifer, Norma, Alice, and Snuffy.

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