Sam: From Lucky Foundling to “Super Hero”

Published 3:07 pm Thursday, June 1, 2017

Written by Vincent Verrecchio
Photographs by Vincent Verrecchio and submitted

The last meal he had eaten was long gone, long enough that his body had begun stripping itself of weight and energy. During the December night, the dog wandered into the refuge of a long open porch along the side of a darkened wood-sided building. As he huddled against white double doors, the wind fingered through his scruffy black coat and ribs to steal vital heat from deep within. The interstate was near enough to hear trucks taking the grade in mountain darkness, leaving him behind as an owner had done.

Through sunken eyes, he watched the sunrise brighten a gravel parking lot with neither heat nor promise. His head came up at the sound of a car engine and crunching tires. His breathing quickened when the driver, a man, stepped into view at the far end of the porch.

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Too tired to go further, of all the places the dog could have chanced upon near Saluda, N.C., he had come to rest at the door of a veterinarian clinic. The cold day, that could have been the dead end of his short six months, was the start of a saga that would warm the lives of many, such as Veronica “Bonnie” Sulger. A Navy veteran born in 1919, she brightened when feeling his fur and the steady rise and fall of his breathing over his 150 visits at her assisted-living home. Perhaps it was meant to be, and not just luck, that one reason he had survived was to be the therapy dog that would lie next to her on a hospital bed and give her his warmth as she died.

A 45-pound black lab mix with a prematurely gray muzzle, there is little to distinguish him at first glance, but for Mrs. Sulger’s daughter, “He was a super hero to my mom.”

If you really look, you may be able to see a rising dove or an invitation to a hug in the white fur on his chest. In his eyes, you will see intelligence and kindness.

“When Dr. Matthews brought him in, he was so small,” remembers Nancy Weinhagen. She got to the clinic that day to work in the kennel and at the front desk, and met the young dog that would eventually be her Sam.

“We checked all the local shelters, put up posters, but no one claimed him. For three weeks, I let Sam in and out and fed him. He was going to have to go to the Foothills Humane Society, and that was 2008 before they became no-kill. When I asked my husband, Charles, to come and met Sam, he said, ‘no way.’  When we got to the clinic, Charles repeated ‘no way.’”

Later that day, Sam was initially reserved when getting home and meeting Sassy, her deaf Pitie; Taz, a Samoyed Lab Shepherd; and Socks, her Great Dane Lab. But they and Charles helped him feel welcome.

“Sam was always so mellow and liked people,” says Nancy. So, about five years ago when Sam was three, she answered a newspaper ad from an organization looking for therapy dogs and handlers. The organization was the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, founded in 1990 by Jack and Ann Butrick, of Cheyenne, Wyo. Today, Nancy is one of about 14,000 handlers in the U.S., Puerto Rico, and Canada.

The goal of the organization is to provide instruction, support, and insurance for members volunteering Animal Assisted Interactions (AAI) at schools, hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and elsewhere. Any healthy, well-mannered dog of any breed, one year and older, can be trained.

To be registered, Sam and Nancy had to pass a test with a variety of pass/fail criteria in each of 13 parts that range from the handler’s observation of situational details to dog handling and behavior.

“Part of our instruction,” explains Nancy, “was two-hour sessions once a week for seven weeks at a care facility. Sam was introduced to new sights and sounds such as a motorized wheelchair.”

Nancy clarifies that a registered therapy dog is not the same as a certified service dog. Sam visits clients to bring smiles and spread a little joy. A service dog is a 24-hour companion trained for skills ranging from opening a refrigerator to helping prevent a PTSD incident.

Among studies to determine the effectiveness of therapy dogs, the Australasian Journal on Aging reports that nine studies collectively suggest a decrease in agitation among senior dementia patients during dog contact. The Handbook on Animal Assisted Therapy from Caltech presents physiological results that indicate stress reduction in adults interacting with dogs. Psychological Reports Journal published findings that suggest stress reduction in healthcare providers may occur within five minutes of therapy dog interaction.

Words such as “suggest,” “indicate,” and “may” seem to be scientific hedging calling for further research. Critics note such variables as trial design and difficulty of quantification.

Most likely, however, none of Sam’s clients read scientific journals, and only care that Sam visits with tail wagging, is happy to linger, and surprises them on special occasions. At Mrs. Sulger’s 96th birthday party, for example, she toasted Sam with grape juice while he resisted cupcake temptations within easy reach.

She asked that he come to her funeral.

Sam was with her when she died, and per her wish, he was at her church service. He then lay by the urn of her ashes on the drive to the Veteran’s Cemetery and walked in step with the Patriot Guard to the graveside. He visits her regularly on most holidays and on the anniversary of her passing to sit and seemingly ponder the headstone.

In February 2017, the veterinarian who had found Sam, found a worrisome lump during a routine exam. Sam’s first operation revealed a malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumor. A second operation went deeper and wider.

“Such a good boy, Sam never had to wear a cone, just his doggy t-shirt to cover the shaved spot and three-inch incision,” Nancy told me as Sam lay at my side on the couch. I hesitated to ask the next question, but Nancy saved me. “The vet did good. Sam is cancer free.” Sam’s luck had not run out and he is back at work.

“When Sam walks into the room and wags his tail, “ concludes Nancy, “it’s like waving a magic wand. Smiles appear even with people who never had a dog.” •