Requiem for a Child’s Best Friend: Plato the Therapy Dog Soothed Hundreds of Upper Valley Kids

  • Madison Welch, 6, left, and Connor Towsley read to Plato at Union Street School in Springfield, Vt., on Nov. 15, 2006. Plato works in the “Paws to Read” program, which entices children to read by pairing them with certified therapy dogs. (Valley News - Channing Johnson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Raymond Chin shows Michael McCann, 5, and other children, how to walk with Plato during recess at Union Street School in Springfield, Vt., on Nov. 15, 2006. (Valley News - Channing Johnson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Union Street School students follow Plato during recess in Springfield, Vt., on Nov. 15, 2006. Children often mob Plato like a celebrity when he is walking the school halls. (Valley News - Channing Johnson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Second-graders at Thetford Elementary School comfort Plato the therapy dog in the weeks before his death on Jan 13.

For the Valley News
Friday, January 20, 2017

Plato died on Jan. 13. He was 12 years and 9 months old. He was a black Labrador-golden retriever mix that I adopted in 2004 from the Upper Valley Humane Society.

I trained Plato to be a certified therapy dog whose main skill was his gentle nature. In fact, when I adopted him from the UVHS he was the only animal that got along with every animal there. He truly had no aggression.

Once he caught up to a groundhog near my garden and I was hoping that he would dispatch him as my other dogs had done before. Instead he sniffed the groundhog, who was frozen in fear. The groundhog realized that he was being spared and started to trot off, with Plato gently nudging him on.

His gentleness was matched only by his exuberance. At our first training class he was “expelled” because of his non-stop barking at the other dogs to get their attention. Through patient training with hundreds of treats he settled down and eventually passed his 14 therapy dog tests with flying colors. One test involved walking him through a room with about a dozen people of all ages walking around. There were children bouncing balls and twirling hula-hoops and adults in wheelchairs, on crutches, or walking with canes. He had to walk without interacting and stop on command to let them pass, all the while ignoring the hot dog and peanut butter treats strewn on the floor.

Plato and I were partners for 11 years. I was the child psychologist evaluating children and adolescents who were distressed, disabled or traumatized. He was the “smile-maker/soother/teacher” who these children accepted and opened their often guarded hearts to. We traveled to dozens of schools in Vermont and New Hampshire.

I estimate that we made more than 1,500 school visits, interacting with thousands of students and teachers. On weekends, walking along the streets of the Upper Valley and beyond, I’d often hear someone shout his name and soon he would be surrounded by children and adolescents who remembered him from a school visit, sometimes years before.

Watching Plato in a classroom was a joy. He reinforced kindergarteners’ teeth-brushing by patiently let me brush his teeth. I used a real toothbrush and peanut butter- or chicken-flavored canine toothpaste. He also reinforced the firepersons’ admonition to “Stop, Drop, and Roll” by literally coming to a halt, lying down and rolling over several times upon hearing that command. He taught gentleness by eating treats slowly from my hand. He taught children to eat healthy when he ate a carrot or a yam during snack time. He never tried to eat their snacks (unless they fell on the floor.)

He taught patience. I’d have him lie down while I held a treat in each hand. Children watched intently as I placed a treat on one paw saying “You can have this treat now, but if you can wait a minute you can have two treats.” They watched him drool, a sign of his desire, but not take the treat. After a minute I would say to him “You are patient. You know that the longer you wait the better it gets” as I put a treat on his other paw. Then he’d happily eat both.

I often asked the children to observe how he did it. The observant ones noticed that he never looked at the treat on his paw. I told them Plato practices “out of sight, out of mind.” We’d then repeat the same challenge with the children using pretzels or another snack that I’d put on their desks. Most, but not all, children were able to wait for the second snack. Afterward, they’d tell me their strategies. Some children months later told me that they still practiced “Plato patience.”

I wanted to test the limits of Plato’s patience during a presentation to about 100 teachers. I gave him the same challenge, but left the auditorium, returning exactly 10 minutes later. He hadn’t touched the treat and there was a puddle of drool about the diameter of a dinner plate to the amazement of the audience and myself.

Plato was also a “Paws-to-Read” dog and was trained to listen to children read to him. When offered the opportunity, every child rushed to read to him. Sometimes there would be eight to 10 children laying their heads on his prone body, reading silently. Other times they would read directly to him. Several children with reading disabilities who had never read aloud in class in the third and fourth grades read aloud to him for the first time, even as they were surrounded by other children.

He was able to act as a companion to children with anxiety disorders. Many a time he guided a child as they learned to confront their fears of reading, writing, math, crowds and loneliness. His unconditional regard for them calmed their doubts and self-criticisms. Indeed, he helped a number of children who were afraid of dogs, some who had been bitten by dogs, to get over their fear of him. They sensed his gentleness despite his muscular 85-pound body (often bigger than them). They would start by touching his tail and gradually work their way up to his head, and eventually feed him. Watching a child build courage was especially gratifying.

He worked especially well with angry children. Angry children often have a desire for control. They wanted to make him do the tricks that they had just witnessed. These children often would shout at him to sit or roll over. Plato would not comply and they would shout louder as their frustration rose. They soon learned that he didn’t respond to anger or threats. They learned to speak quietly, to befriend him and he would respond with a raised paw, his equivalent of a “high five.” After they learned to treat him with respect they could ask him to do most anything. Eventually, some earned the privilege of walking Plato on a leash. I made it clear that I was entrusting Plato to them because they had demonstrated that they were now “protectors” rather than aggressors.

He worked well with children with autism. I suspect that he connected with these children because of their shared hypersensitivity to sounds, smells, and touch compared to us neuro-typicals. Some children learned to walk him on a leash during gym classes with blaring music and students running wildly. The leash was a connection that gave both a sense of security despite the aversive environment.

Teachers were also enamored of him. Many teachers invited him into their classrooms. Sometimes there were other animals in the classroom, like rabbits, gerbils, hamsters, turtles, snakes, and an occasional bird. Plato was always interested in them, but never barked or acted aggressively. Some teachers took the animals out for a meet and greet with Plato.

After evaluating a child, I often met with the parents and teachers to discuss my findings. These meetings can be tense, because the child was experiencing academic, emotional, social difficulties in school. One meeting stands out: As we began, Plato found a box of stuffed animals. He brought one to me, to the laughter of everyone. I accepted it, knowing that he was asking permission to rip it apart. I kept it. After a few seconds of a longing look he left and a minute later he brought another stuffed animal to a teacher, to the delight of everyone. She accepted it gratefully. He looked at her longingly but she didn’t give it to him. He left and brought another one to a parent and so on. By the fourth “gift” the mood of the meeting had changed and we were able to discuss the child with ease. I think that everyone was relieved to know that we were all the same, that is, kind and able to laugh.

Not long after Plato received his therapy dog certification, I got a call from an animal shelter asking if I could facilitate a group on grieving. It was a particularly rough year and the shelter’s staff had to euthanize many dogs because of space limitations. The small room was packed with staff as I started the discussion about grieving with Plato quietly at my side. There was a range of moods. Some were visibly sad, while others were more stoic. One person started to cry and Plato immediately got up and put his head on her lap. She began to sob and after a while she started to talk and this generated more discussion.

The staff had contained their grief for months, only to become more distressed. Some felt that they were doing their jobs, while others felt it was morally wrong to kill. I think that Plato’s act of placing his head on that person’s lap gave her and others permission to openly grieve and express their thoughts. Months later, the shelter decided that it was going to be a no kill shelter.

When we weren’t working he loved going for walks and exploring. He was especially fond of chasing any animal, realizing that he could never catch the squirrel, deer or bird. In most cases, he’d see a deer in the distance, howl, and give chase only to give up after a few hundred feet when he could no longer see the deer. The mere mention of the word “deer” or “bird” would elicit his attention and he’d survey the air for scent or scan the terrain. We have two herds of deer that regularly visit us and they were so used to Plato that they wouldn’t run until he was pretty close to them. It was clear they were teasing Plato, but Plato felt that he was showing them who was boss.

Plato wasn’t especially fond of swimming unless I was in the water. He wanted to keep me safe. But he was tireless when it came to retrieving a ball in the water no matter how far I threw it.

He was a strong dog. He would routinely find a large branch and chew it to pieces. The toughest dog toy didn’t last a day, especially if it contained a squeaker. Once I threw two volleyball poles made from saplings about 3 inches in diameter and 8 feet long over a bank. He promptly bounded down the bank and came back with a pole perfectly balanced between his teeth. He thought it was just another stick to fetch and ran back with it. I had to jump over the pole as he ran past me.

During the last 7 months of his life Plato fought cancer in his left front leg that deprived him of his ability to run and jump and eventually to walk beyond a few yards. He went into retirement, except for a few visits to a second-grade classroom at Thetford Elementary School. The teachers, knowing that Plato was ill, wanted to give the students a chance to give back to him what he had given to them.

During those visits the students stroked him, sang songs to him, read their letters of comfort to him and showed their paintings of him. We talked about death and dying as we all tearfully recounted stories of their animals who had died. Plato’s last visit to their class came four days before he died.

During those last seven months my wife and I grappled with the ultimate question of quantity versus quality of his life. The cancer was inoperable. We had tried both Western and Eastern medicine including cold laser, acupuncture, pharmaceuticals and herbs. We prayed for a miracle. Nothing stopped the cancer, although the treatments probably slowed it down because he lived longer than his prognosis.

It became clearer that Plato was willing to suffer great pain to be there for us. Were we willing to let him go? We were repeatedly told by those who had decided to put down their dogs or cats that their animals had let them know when it was time, and that Plato would let us know.

As a pediatric psychologist, I have had to help children and families make decisions about when to continue or stop treatments for cancer or cystic fibrosis. I recall one meeting with the parents of an 11-year-old girl who had cancer as the oncologists told them they had run out of cancer treatments. They were at a loss as to what to do next. If they stopped treatments would their daughter think they were giving up on her? Should they wait for an experimental treatment to suddenly come forward? Could she tolerate more pain and the side effects of the chemotherapy and radiation? The parents wanted to know what their daughter thought and asked me to talk to her because they couldn’t bear the pain of saying it. I agreed, so long as they were in the room with me as I talked to her.

I sat down next to her in her hospital bed amid the IVs and monitors. I began to tell her a story about a girl who planted a garden in the spring. She carefully planted rows of seeds. The little shoots of vegetables and flowers came forth as the weather warmed. She tended the garden everyday watching the plants grow and put forth leaves. One day she noticed weeds in her garden and pulled them. But the next day there seemed to be even more weeds. Eventually she had to get help from specialists who could spray weed killers throughout the summer. The weeds kept coming back. As summer passed into fall, the specialists admitted that their weed killers hadn’t worked.

At this point in the story, the patient spontaneously said “I’m that girl in the story.” I said yes, and asked her to help me finish the story. She said that it was getting too cold to garden and to stop the weed killers. She wanted to spend the winter in a warmer place. Throughout our conversation we could hear the sobbing of her parents, but this didn’t distract her. She decided that she wanted to go to see Shamu the killer whale in Florida. Her parents stopped treatment and took her to Sea World. She died soon after.

In retrospect, that meeting was a preview of the agony that my wife and I now felt for Plato. Letting go of hope for a miracle, I prayed for a sign to know when to let go of him.

After one particularly fitful night of whining and panting, I knew that the time had come. I called the veterinarian to arrange to come to our house to put him to sleep.

I sat with Plato for three hours waiting for the veterinarian. I fed him his favorite treats, stroked him, took him outside for a bit, and read the letters the children had written to him. All the while I was still doubting if this was the right decision.

I read a picture book to him entitled Sally Goes to Heaven, by Stephen Huneck. It is about his black lab who dies and goes to heaven where she is met by many dogs running around, sleeping on an endless couch, and eating meatballs that grow on trees. As I opened the book to read to him, he instinctively sat up to listen as he had so many times before. It was a difficult read for me because I was sobbing. After a few pages, he let out a loud sigh as if to say he was ready to leave.

The veterinarian and her assistant came. He acknowledged their presence calmly. Throughout the procedure we were face to face as I spoke to him. He died in my arms peacefully, in the manner in which he had lived. Even in dying he taught me acceptance, letting go, and ending suffering.

I am sure that he is spiritually in a place with my past dogs — Lily, Ming Jai, Bogey, Maggie and Mon Li, along with the many pets that belonged to the children he met over the years. He is in the cosmos with our passed parents, other family, and friends playing catch, lounging, reading, eating meatballs.

I realize now that I always had the miracle that I had prayed for. I was witness to the healing power of his presence with everyone he met. He brought out the hidden compassion in angry teenagers. He brought relief to the most hurt children. He gave security to those with overwhelming fears. He brought humor into the most serious situations. Most of all he gave love to those most in need of it. I try every day to live my life as he did.

Raymond Chin is a pediatric psychologist. He lives in Thetford.