When the ambulance arrived a few days ago to take me to the closest emergency hospital, I couldn’t bear the thought of going without Sky, my service dog.  I knew that some hospitals allowed service dogs to stay with their partners, but only if there were someone to walk them other than the hospital staff.  This time, I was going to the hospital alone, all the more reason I needed Sky with me in the first place.  I managed to get her into her cape and she trotted alongside while I was wheeled out.  One of the paramedics helped her into the back of the ambulance and when we got to the hospital, just four blocks away, he ran her across the street where she could relieve herself next to a big tree.

No one said boo when we were checked in.  Sky hopped onto the bed with me, hunkered down close and waited.  She’d been there before.  She’d been doing this all her life.

When she was eight weeks old, the youngest age an airline will allow a puppy to fly, I flew down to North Carolina and flew home with her the same day.  She could have passed for a frequent flier even then.  By the next week, she was riding on the bus.  Sometimes, even in a bureaucracy, you get just the right person and so Sky already had credentials that allowed us public access so that I could train her.  A few weeks after that, we were in restaurants, just for tea because she was too young to sit through a whole meal, but that changed in no time at all because my older service dog was there, too, and Sky merely copied everything he did.  In fact, that’s how she began to learn her job.  I am a big fan of on the job training or apprenticeship.  I was an apprentice myself before I started dog training on my own and found that this method works wonderfully well for service dogs, at least for mine.  Of course, I am appropriate always. I do not ask my dog to do something she’s obviously not ready for and I go slowly, making sure that when she’s young, work is not stressful and there’s lots of play in between.  I made a pledge to myself when I was first given the privilege of having a service dog that I would only make things easier for the person coming behind me, never harder.

Though hospital “rules” require someone other than the patient to mind the dog and walk her when necessary, people love dogs more than rules and some lovely young woman stayed with Sky while I had a CAT scan and then when I was to be transported to the main hospital, once again the paramedic, who knew enough to ask if I had a word to tell Sky to go, (I do), took her to a nearby tree (what we New Yorkers call a park) and let her relieve herself.

Because the woman assigning rooms is a dog lover, she was not only happy to have Sky there but gave us a private room.  That’s when I had time to think about the fact that the only thing I’d grabbed on the way out, beside her leash, was the iPhone charger,  Not Sky’s food. And anyway, how could I have?  I was not only in screaming level pain, but she eats raw.

The night nurse, a lovely man named Andrew, was sympathetic when I asked if he could find a hard boiled egg somewhere in the hospital for Sky, as if he had nothing else to do and as if the hospital were the corner deli.  He returned with a turkey and sandwich and we both smiled watching her wolf it down and then curl back up at my side.  I got to hear about Andrew’s dog – and the dogs of many other people in my short stay in our private room,including a story, from one of the doctors about how her dog had found the cancer that almost killed her and had thereby saved her life.

In the morning, someone came to tell me that Sky couldn’t stay, that there was no program in place to walk service dogs for patients and that hospital personnel could not be asked to do so.  Although there were other volunteers to walk Sky, I had asked a huge favor of Andrew.  I had asked him to walk her after his shift was over.  I knew the other people loved dogs, but Andrew had brought her dinner and had talked to me about his dog and I could not hand Sky over to a total stranger.  She would have to go, I was told, but after I had sobbed for half an hour or so, I was told, never mind, it’s OK, she can stay.

Sometimes I think of my dog as a mirror, as I am for her.  We share joy and we share stress.  Sometimes it’s easier to see this in another rather than in yourself. Pressed against me, as afraid of me disappearing as I am of being without her for even five minutes, she swallowed her stress and kept comforting me.  We shared whatever good chemistry we could.  We were all that was familiar in our private hospital room.  We were partners, a team, an example of how helpful, loving and unobtrusive a dog can be, even in a busy hospital.

My friend, Maggie, arrived in the nick of time to stay with Sky while I had a procedure, bringing much welcomed food for her.  Sky had already been given water in one of those kidney shaped things they give you if you need to throw up. We improvised, as did the staff, and before I had time to figure out who to call for the night walk, barely over the procedure, I was sent home in the pouring rain.

Throughout the whole ordeal, just a little reminder that Crohn’s disease can knock you down at any time, Sky was there for me, quietly helpful, reassuring, warming me and sharing all the good chemistry that comes when dogs and humans are connected.  Because she was brought into the job slowly, because the job stems from our attachment to each other, because she had a dedicated, beautifully behaved service dog as a mentor, because I pay attention to her needs as well as my own – or more than my own – because mutual devotion is a precious thing to be appreciated and not squandered, what a service dog can do for her partner was evident everywhere and because of that, and because of the unobtrusive generosity of service dogs, I was able to have exactly what I needed to get me through a couple of hard long nights and days.

Photo by Zachary Joubert

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