“Chuck marveled as six distinct personalities emerged —including one that didn’t want to pet Rikki but seemed to enjoy watching Chuck pet her.”
- Adaptation from “Encounters with Rikki: From Hurricane Katrina Rescue to Exceptional Therapy Dog”
- Proximity Magazine Narrative Journalism Prize Finalist 2016, Theme: Inside | Out.
- Forthcoming in Proximity’s debut anthology (2019)
Six months into their regular visits to Florida’s largest psychiatric hospital, Chuck and Therapy Dog Rikki were scheduled to join two other teams of dogs and their people in the Florida State Hospital parking lot. Rikki was snoozing on the backseat of the SUV for most of the forty-five-minute drive. As they got closer, Chuck alerted her by saying that Rikki’s “boyfriend,” Grendel, would be there. He was one of the rare dogs that the golden retriever tolerated.
At the sound of the 180-pound European Great Dane’s name, Rikki’s head popped up. She stretched her paws catlike and sat up to look out the window. Rikki was part of a threesome Chuck nicknamed “The Three Stooges.” The group of therapy dogs also included Grendel, who was named after the monster in a horror flick, and a retired American Kennel Club champion show dog, Caja, who had her own trophy room.
Each dog had its unique strengths in their work with children in the court system, medical patients, and the mentally ill. Because of his size—like that of a small pony—Grendel turned heads. He was mostly a conversation starter and helped relieve stress by providing distraction and amusement. People were usually content just watching him and asking questions. As a champion agility dog, the much smaller Caja entertained onlookers by twirling on her hind legs, jumping, rolling over, and spinning. Rikki’s best trick, Chuck liked to joke, was to get a person to reach out and touch her. Even in a group setting, she found a way to zero in on the individual with the greatest need. Chuck rewarded her richly with her favorite treat: organic baby carrots.
Rikki had been shy and sickly when Chuck and his wife Patty agreed to foster the Hurricane Katrina rescue four years earlier. After they adopted Rikki, the Mitchell’s dog trainer was the first to note something special about the petite-sized golden. “That’s an angel in a dog’s body,” he said.
Their vet confirmed that Rikki had an unusual gift of empathy and encouraged them to have her screened for animal assisted therapy work. Patty was now volunteering with Rikki in elementary schools while Chuck and Rikki worked in a variety of other environments, including behavioral health and medical centers.
Once inside the state hospital building, the “Three Stooges” went separate ways with their human partners. Chuck followed Rikki’s lead into the rehab area, a dimly lit, windowless room with pale green block walls. Chuck’s six-foot-five-inch frame was generally hard to miss when he entered a room, but when he was trailing Rikki, he felt himself disappear.
Rikki walked purposefully across the slick linoleum floors, weaving her way through cafeteria style table and chair workstations. She stopped when she reached a slender-looking male patient who was sitting in front of his therapist with a vacant stare. The man looked to be in his late 40s with a pale, leathery face that reminded Chuck of a cowboy.
The therapist turned to greet Rikki and she acknowledged him with a swish of her tail before sitting down next to his patient. Picking up on this cue, the therapist told Chuck the patient’s name was Arnold. Chuck bent down next to his dog and said, “This is Rikki and she’s a therapy dog. Would you like to meet her?”
Arnold didn’t acknowledge them, but he did look toward a woman standing next to the therapist. She made hand signals, so Chuck guessed that Arnold was deaf. After the exchange, Arnold answered by shooing Chuck and Rikki away. Chuck smiled and stood up. “That’s all right,” he said, and shrugged. He thanked the therapist and the interpreter before steering Rikki in another direction.
The next four residents were much more interested in Rikki. One therapist pulled Chuck aside and told him it was the first time she had seen her patient smile in years. After Rikki charmed the others for a few minutes, she started back in Arnold’s direction. Chuck followed her lead, thinking maybe the man had changed his mind. As they came closer, Arnold still didn’t look their way and dismissed them with another wave of his hand.
Chuck led Rikki to other therapist-patient groups, and she was attentive, but soon pulled Chuck toward Arnold a third time. The man didn’t bother to wave them away, but stared at the therapist while Chuck knelt down and stroked Rikki’s head, hoping to get his attention. After a few minutes, Chuck whispered to Rikki, “Little girl, I think we need to leave him alone,” and stood up. The golden slowly followed her handler across the room. But then, a few minutes later, Rikki pulled in Arnold’s direction again.
Chuck resigned himself to his therapy dog’s insistence. After more than fifty visits, he had learned to trust Rikki’s gift of discerning who needed to meet her, even if only she knew why. He got the attention of the interpreter. “Forgive me, but my dog really seems to think that your client would like to meet her. Would you mind asking him just one more time?”
Before the woman could answer, Rikki had planted herself at Arnold’s feet and was looking toward his face expectantly. Arnold glanced down and suddenly started thrashing his arms, as if experiencing a seizure. Chuck quickly knelt down next to Rikki and wrapped his finger around her collar, in case he needed to get her out of the way. But Rikki stayed focused on Arnold, her muscles relaxed and mouth open in a sort of grin.
Chuck watched as a rapid series of expressions cycled across Arnold’s face and his eyes rolled back. Seconds later, his look softened and his mouth formed a smile. He turned toward Rikki and reached out to her as if she were a new discovery. Chuck felt Rikki moving closer and watched as Arnold leaned over to wrap his arms around her neck, burying his head in her fur and moaning. Rikki was relaxed and leaned into him, as if returning the embrace. Chuck, the therapist, and the interpreter watched in stunned silence as Arnold wept softly and rocked back and forth, holding the dog.
Then as rapidly as it started, Arnold released Rikki and sat upright. His vacant stare returned. Chuck waited for a moment, then felt Rikki stand up. Rikki started walking toward the exit and Chuck followed, giving a casual wave to the interpreter. He was bewildered by the exchange and wondered,What just happened?
When Chuck started down the hallway, he saw that Arnold’s therapist was following them. The man also had a look of amazement. He told Chuck that Arnold suffered from dissociative identity disorder. During his twelve years at the Florida State Hospital, staff had identified nine distinct personalities. However, Arnold’s dominant one—which was aloof and antisocial—controlled the others and prevented them from emerging, so they would only get glimpses of them on occasion.
He told Chuck, “Your dog did in a few minutes what I haven’t been able to do in twelve years. She connected with one of his personalities who wanted to deal with the outside world in a positive manner.”
Chuck told the therapist he had experienced some unusual encounters with Rikki, but this was especially unique. The therapist said he had heard of animal-assisted therapy but never really believed it could benefit his practice. He asked if Chuck and Rikki could return soon and work exclusively with Arnold. “Absolutely,” Chuck said. “I’m as anxious as you are to see where it might lead.”
* * *
Chuck and Rikki arrived for the scheduled visit a few weeks later. When they walked into the therapy session, this time arranged outdoors under a canopy, Chuck realized there were a few more people than usual. His stomach tensed when he recognized one woman as the hospital’s chief medical director. It appeared that he and Rikki were there to prove themselves to a skeptical audience.
Dogs can pick up on their handlers’ cues and mirror their feelings. Knowing this, Chuck tried his best to suppress his nervousness. Relaxed, Rikki weaved her way through the chairs and lured people into petting her, assuring Chuck she was fine.
Still, he couldn’t help but wonder, Will this work?He had no idea how it happened the first time, so he didn’t have a clue whether Rikki would be able to connect with Arnold again. He reminded himself of the hundreds of other successful interactions he and Rikki had together and decided to let go of his worries about the outcome.
Arnold sat facing his therapist and interpreter, but as with the first visit, he was uninterested in Rikki. For an hour, Chuck knelt on the ground next to the dog, until his legs started to feel numb. When there was a lull in activity, Rikki would normally sprawl out on the floor—she could sleep anywhere. But this time she remained upright, within petting distance, her attention fully on Arnold.
Finally, “Earl,” the name given to the personality who wanted to pet Rikki, emerged. The transition was obvious. It was like a different person with entirely different expressions was taking over the same body. Arnold’s face went from stern defiance to a soft openness. He turned toward Rikki and reached out to stroke her fur.
Chuck marveled as six distinct personalities emerged —including one that didn’t want to pet Rikki but seemed to enjoy watching Chuck pet her. Arnold’s personalities asked questions about Rikki through the interpreter.
As Chuck encouraged the interaction between Rikki and Arnold, he heard the medical director whisper to one of her colleagues, “He’s never done anythinglike this before.” She was especially impressed that Arnold had acknowledged a visitor—Chuck—and, even more so, that he had asked Chuck questions.
Arnold saw how Chuck used baby carrots to capture Rikki’s attention, so he reached for one. He held it out to Rikki and smiled at the gentle retrieving and quiet munching that followed. Chuck pulled another carrot from his pocket and asked Rikki to “shake.” She offered her right paw and leaned forward to claim her reward. Out of the corner of his eye, Chuck saw Arnold’s face contort — another personality tried to emerge — but the personality petting Rikki shooed this new one away, as if it were a mosquito. Rikki knew when to move in and engage with Arnold and when to give him distance.
Rikki extended her head and parted her lips in a smile. Arnold stroked her ears and made a soft cooing sound. The therapist used the time to engage Arnold in gentle conversation, asking him open-ended questions oriented around the dog – what he liked about Rikki, how he felt when petting her – and Arnold kept his hands on Rikki when he wasn’t signing his response.
After about ninety minutes, the therapist ended the session and asked if Arnold could walk Chuck and Rikki to the car. As everyone exchanged thanks, including Arnold through his interpreter, Chuck felt his throat clench with emotion at what seemed like a miracle. Chuck said he appreciated the hospital staff giving Rikki and him a chance to help.
Barely out of sight of the hospital, Chuck looked into his rearview mirror and saw that Rikki had fallen into a deep slumber across the backseat. Sharing so much of herself had tired her out.
* * *
On the Three Stooges’ regular visit to Florida State Hospital the following month, Chuck recognized Arnold when they entered the specialty unit’s rehab area. He noticed that Arnold no longer had a vacant expression. Instead, he was holding a notepad, communicating with his therapist through written word in addition to using the interpreter. Chuck thought Arnold would recognize Rikki, but he didn’t. Looking down at Rikki, Chuck waited for her to pull in Arnold’s direction. But she acted the same; neither Rikki nor Arnold seemed particularly interested in the other.
Chuck was disappointed and confused until he discussed it over dinner that evening with Patty. Arnold didn’t need Rikki anymore, and Rikki knew it. He had needed a way to get around his detached dominant personality, which kept him in solitary confinement in his own body. Arnold was now able to make progress using more traditional forms of therapy, Chuck realized. It was a new example of Rikki’s gift at work: she was the key that unlocked a cell door.