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Gabby and John: Golden retriever helps to ease her owner’s struggle with Alzheimer’s

By Suzanne W. Casey

For the Salisbury Post

SALISBURY — It was May 11, 2011, and something deep inside me insisted I follow up on an ad for “Golden retriever puppies.”

My husband, John, was dead set against getting another dog, as I’ve loved our high-maintenance, 10-year-old Shih Tzu terrier hybrid. Puppy was on my bucket list, and I was not getting any younger.

John refused to go with me that day, so I called my dog-friendly cousin. She said she would go along for the ride. We spent over an hour bonding with the darlings, and we had made our selection. My cousin couldn’t resist such cuteness.

Bringing them home was a scene to be remembered. John refused to look, got mad and said the dog had to live outside permanently. He refused to go into our spacious, picket-fenced, shaded backyard. So I named her Gabriel, after the Archangel messenger from God, patron saint of communication.

We called her Gabby. Fitting name.

For three months, John would not acknowledge her existence. She had become more than a handful, jumping with front paws on anyone who entered her domain. Ankle-nipping became her passion.

The house looked inviting, and she assented to socialize with us. The thought of finding her another home entered our minds. She was at a desirable age, young and beautiful, but wild and out of control.

After calling vets and friends, a crucial turning point occurred. John admitted he, too, had grown to adore this beautiful golden girl. She moved into the house with us, got obedience training from John and changed into a relaxed, aiming-to-please pet.

House dog!

Gabby’s greatest joys were flying through the air with unbridled enthusiasm to fetch a tennis ball and speed back. John thoroughly enjoyed watching her amazing skills of retrieving.

There was a slight incline to the pavers where John sat so Gabby would drop the ball a few feet behind him so it would roll right into his reach, without his having to get out of the chair.

Intelligent dog!

This game continued daily for many years, all seasons. John had taken over the feeding schedule and obedience classes. She rode in the front seat of his white Jaguar and sat straight up like a person, turning heads daily.

Well known at the bank drive-through, Gabby became a regular with John’s real estate clients and friends. As John’s partner, she continued her retrieving as a means of easing anxiety and making way for good feelings to come for both.

Watching her dark brown eyes and lovely golden color gave us grateful silent hallelujahs.

Beloved dog!

A common trait of golden retrievers is to put their heads against you and lean. This is endearing, and she does this to anyone she takes a liking to.

Sadly, John was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. It was slow developing at first, hardly noticeable to most, but extremely irritating to many as time went on.

Repeating the same question, making poor decisions, and refusing to give up driving — all were classic symptoms. His shuffling feet led to serious falls.

The brain tissues were shrinking, brain ventricles enlarging, cells of the shrinking hippocampus degenerating, and memory declining.

When this disease spreads throughout the cerebral cortex, language, judgment, behavior and bodily functions decline along with memory.

The greatest bond between man and dog was strengthening as this was evolving. John’s days were a challenge for us, and Gabby took to his side at all times.

Dogs can read human emotions. They give their human a peaceful attitude from just a touch. Gabby was adding a love boost to our days.

Self-appointed therapy dog!

As John became unable to walk, their tennis game stopped. Gabby refused to retrieve for me or anyone. She must have felt a disloyalty to John after years of the game with him.

Loyal dog!

Even today, Gabby shows her trust and love, reading my feelings when I think I can’t go on as a caregiver. Her love is shown as she sleeps by the wheelchair and hospital bed in our bedroom.

Her 70 pounds greet our team of caregivers who come and go daily. Any caregiver who does not take to dogs does not last long with us.

As the wheelchair is rolled from kitchen to den, Gabby leads the way with excitement in her stride. She greets daughters, sons, nurses, physical therapists and friends with great enthusiasm.

She respects our special Dr. Myron Goodman when he makes evening house calls, a lost art that has made our journey less fearful.

From the chaotic scene of an unmanageable puppy to the comforting therapy tool that she became, we give thanks.

God sent us a messenger angel named Gabriel, patron saint of communication.

Our lives have been enriched with the affection of a fine dog. Dogs know more than most about the important things in life and the world. Gabby’s soul-solving glances pry open my heart and give me hope.

Good dog!

Suzanne and John Casey live in Salisbury.

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