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Remembering Baxter, therapy dog extraordinaire

November 29, 2009 | 12:00 pm

We're deeply impressed by therapy dogs, animals that brighten the lives of the people whose lives need brightening the most. Guest blogger Janet Kinosian shares the story of one such dog, Baxter, who passed away recently after years of helping the patients at a San Diego hospice.

Baxter I was scheduled to meet Baxter Bussey, the world's oldest therapy dog, who at 19 1/2  was still working (despite the pain of arthritis) two or three times weekly at the San Diego Hospice and Institute for Palliative Medicine. That meeting never happened because Baxter died the week before our scheduled rendezvous.

Luckily, though, I was able to still encounter him via his emotive YouTube video, which pretty much tells Baxter's powerful story and shows his amazing gift in a snapshot. I'm not sure why I was so stunned by this video, but I was, as were about 400,000 others who saw it. In it, we saw something rarely seen: the very old comforting those near death.

As an end-of-life therapy dog doing highly sensitive and compassionate work, Baxter comforted those who lay dying and in pain, helping them on their transition from life to death, sometimes in their very last hours. 

For the patients in the hospice ward, Baxter, a golden retriever-chow chow mix, became a mobile furry emergency unit, entering damaged lives with grace and mercy, providing whatever healing he could. 

For anyone wondering whether therapy dogs are just the newest fad in Americans' love affair with their companion animals, ask yourself this: Who among us could consistently do this often wrenching work?

This, though, is where Baxter's immense soul triumphed, says his owner, Melissa Joseph, who each week wheeled Baxter into the hospice unit in a red covered wagon filled with stuffed pillows -- his favorite being an oversize blue-and-white bone-shaped number that read "Old Soul."  

Baxter Joseph, who rescued Baxter from an abusive environment when he was 2 years old, says one of his most therapeutic tools were his oversize eyes, which looked as if they were ringed with blurry-black eyeliner. He'd stare directly into patients' eyes with these huge soulful orbs and patients' pain would ease, Joseph says. 

"He'd go eye to eye -- it was one of his favorite things to do -- and I dare anyone not to melt. He had such a very beautiful and intense gaze," she recalls. His huge bear paws and real-life teddy-bear ears made him both irresistible and potent medicine. "I'd always tell people his ears were big because as an angel they helped him fly," Joseph says.

As a key member of the hospice's Pawsitive Pals Pet Therapy Program team for seven years, Baxter licked the faces and feet of dying men, women and children. He wore silly hats to celebrate the lonely on their birthdays and allowed thin arms to envelop him for hours. (You can read about 36 patients who received the Baxter treatment in Joseph’s book, "Moments With Baxter." All proceeds from the sale of the book, as well as the sales of Baxter stuffed animals, will go to various animal-rescue charities.)

One of the things that allow dying patients to open up so quickly and readily to a skilled therapy animal like Baxter is that "they don’t have to talk or worry about interacting; they just get to be there with the comfort," says Joseph, who was a crucial part of Team Baxter. 

She and Baxter worked on all holidays, which can be especially emotionally draining and tough. "Maybe they were struggling thinking about saying goodbye to their loved ones, and all the things in their life, but Baxter didn’t require anything of anyone. He just gave unconditional presence and love and softness," Joseph recalls. "He just instinctively and amazingly always knew exactly what to do and who needed what."

Baxter Joseph remembers one patient, a 36-year-old woman she and Baxter visited for about a year, especially well. The last time they saw her, she was being transported by ambulance to go home and die. Joseph says she overheard one of the ambulance drivers asking where Room 207 was and knew he was asking about this young woman. She asked whether she could place Baxter on the gurney to surprise this patient and bring her some joy.

"He struggled with saying yes and really never did," Joseph says. "I just put Baxter on top [of the gurney] and all of a sudden away we went." The hospice's staff members remember seeing Baxter and this dying woman together on the gurney, rolling around the beautiful hospice grounds. She died soon after. 

The medical staff who worked with Baxter clearly loved and admired him. "If I had just one word to describe Baxter, it'd be 'sage,'" says Dr. Shannon Moore, an oncologist at the institute. "It's not a word you use about many beings, but it was true about Baxter."

Lisa McCollough, the hospice's chaplain, thought Baxter was "a rare dignified soul. He just had this immense dignity and spiritual-like presence."

"And he was very free with his licks," McCollough adds.

Rodney Swan, the hospice's pharmaceutical aromatherapist, noticed how Baxter seemed to sense the value of a good photo op, and "when there were cameras around, he'd give a quick turn and almost smile at the cameras, and then immediately he'd go back to why he was really there. He never let it interfere with his important work."

Baxter One veteran hospice night nurse simply labeled him "the guru of therapy dogs."

More than 100 people, including doctors, nurses, patients, family members and fans, said a formal goodbye to this amazing animal Oct. 21 at a standing-room-only memorial service organized by the hospice. 

I'd never been to a memorial service for a dog, and I can tell you there were few dry eyes in the house.

As was mentioned at the service, Baxter was able to do his most honorable work because Joseph and her husband, Dennis Bussey, took wonderful care of their dog. Toward the end of his life Baxter received twice-daily acupuncture treatments and massages and swam therapeutically two or three times a week. 

Joseph says it helped with Baxter's sometimes gnawing arthritic pain. "But I really do believe his suffering often overshadowed [patients'] own, if for just that brief moment in time, and helped them focus their compassion on Baxter as he was focusing his on them."

Ultimately, Baxter's story offers me some important lessons about what the face of death and the end-of-life journey can be, and the knowledge that we can receive comfort from some very unlikely places -- like the sweet, licking tongue of a gifted therapy dog.

Rest in peace, Baxter. You did noble work.

[Editor's note: You can learn more about therapy dog programs by visiting the websites of the Delta Society, Therapy Dogs Inc. and Therapy Dogs International.]

-- Janet Kinosian

Reporter and media consultant Janet Kinosian has been a freelance contributor to the Los Angeles Times, L.A. Times Magazine and L.A. Times Syndicate for 18 years.

Credit for top three photos: Dennis Bussey. Fourth photo: The cover of Baxter's book, "Moments with Baxter."

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