Los Angeles pet lovers.
by Lauri Seamark, MA, CCLS
On Mother’s Day I headed out to the Irvine Animal Shelter where I was captivated by the longing, sad, yet hopeful gaze of a young beagle. She seemed to be saying "pick me and I will love you forever." Little did I know that day, as I adopted my Dani, that I was about to embark on the roller coaster of a lifetime.
At first glance, Dani seemed to be the perfect pet, house broken, spayed, and obedient, but I soon learned that given the opportunity, Dani was destructive. I had to have two of my mother’s sofas reupholstered the first summer that I had her. Fortunately, with a lot of discipline, love and chew toys of her own, Dani began to settle down and I began taking her with me wherever I went. Dani loved to be on the go and to interact with the people we met.
After a few years passed I entered graduate school in Chicago, where my schedule became jam packed with classes, my thesis, and my internship. I worried if I was giving Dani the time and attention that she deserved. Around the same time my cousin Joe had surgery at Shriner’s Children Hospital where he encountered a therapy dog. Little Joe’s experience with the dog was extremely positive, as was his relationship with Dani. His mother encouraged me and gave me information about a special therapy dog training program. Therapy dog school seemed to be the perfect solution to my dilemma. Dani’s temperament and personality suited the job perfectly and attending school each week gave us the special time together that we both needed.
Dani graduated from school in the fall of ’94 by completing a health screening, passing tolerance and obedience tests, and performing five tricks. She began accompanying me once a week to my internship in the pediatric unit at the Rush Presbyterian St. Luke’s Medical Center. Through her unconditional love, playful antics and gentle demeanor Dani empowered and motivated her young patients.
Dani then journeyed with me to various hospitals as I completed my internships and began my professional career as a child life specialist. Everywhere we went Dani put the children at ease and raised their confidence and comfort level.
In June of 1997 Dani and I had the good fortune of joining the staff of the Cedars-Sinai Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dani’s presence was quickly accepted and both the patients and the staff looked forward to her weekly visits.
Prior to each visit, Dani had to have a thorough bathing to ensure that she was as clean as possible before interacting with the children, many of whom were immuno-supressed as a result of their chemotherapy. It was during one of these weekly baths in October of 1997 that I discovered a lump on Dani’s right hind leg. I was panicked and took Dani to see her veterinarian, Dr. Scott Weldy, immediately.
Dr. Weldy did not like the look or feel of the mass and was uncomfortable with the rate at which it was growing. He scheduled Dani for surgery right away and was fortunately able to remove the entire tumor, which proved to be a mastocytoma. Dani, who had touched the lives of so many people with cancer, now was experiencing the realities of cancer herself.
I was devastated. I unfortunately knew cancer and the horrible side-effects of its treatment options all too well. I was scared and I was angry. Why Dani? She did not deserve this.
After she recovered from her surgery, Dani began a yearlong course of oral chemotherapy and steroids. We also got some good news. Dr. Weldy said Dani could return to her duties as a therapy dog when she felt ready. The children related to Dani in a whole new way. Ironically, Dani’s medications were the same as many of those prescribed to the children and produced similar side effects. Dani took the steroid prednisone, which the children have nick-named the "hungry medicine," because it stimulates your appetite significantly. Dani experienced nausea, fatigue and low blood counts; all side effects shared by the children. Dani was able to escape one major side effect however, hair loss. This was an advantage of being a short-hair dog but made Dani’s young patients a bit envious.
Dani finished her treatment just over a year ago and celebrated by being guest of honor at a party with the patients and staff at the Cancer Center. We had been through a year of trials and tribulations that had ended in triumph but the roller coaster ride did not end there.
In December of 1998 Cedars-Sinai put out a press release and Dani held an afternoon press conference. She appeared on all the evening newscasts and in the Los Angeles Times. From there, the popularity of Dani’s story snowballed and she has become quite the "media hound."
She appeared on the show, Animals Are People, Too, and in Dog Fancy and Pets: Part of the Family magazines. Each time she filmed and photographed with different children from the Cancer Center allowing them to be in the spotlight as Dani’s costars. Dani most recently appeared on ABC News 20/20. Her future projects include a segment on a PBS series, Dogs with Jobs and on Animal Planet. Both are due out later this year.
With all of the interviews and media attention has come one very difficult question, "What will you do when Dani needs to retire?" I hope that Dani can continue to touch and inspire her patients for as long as possible, but I have given the issue serious thought. I decided to start training another dog now so that Dani may help me through the process. Just after the new year we brought home Dexter, Dani’s new little brother. He and Dani are getting acquainted. Dexter has already brought out the puppy in his big sister. Dexter has awfully big paws to fill, but hopefully, in 2-3 years, when I have confidence in Dexter’s abilities as a therapy dog, Dani will be ready to enjoy her retirement.
(Lauri Seamark is a child life specialist at the Cedars-Sinai Comprehensive Cancer Center where she brings Dani to visit the patients every Thursday afternoon. To learn more about the therapy dog program at Cedars-Sinai call volunteer services at (310)423-5231.)
First published in August of 1999, The Pet Press has become THE only local resource for
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