A nurse named Scarlett
Meet a dog that thought it was a nurse.
Scarlett looked up at me, her tail wagging expectantly as she presented her newest "patient." I had just returned from a 14-hour shift at the emergency veterinary clinic where I worked nights. I was tired and needed my morning nap.
But I couldn't ignore the medical needs of the animal at Scarlett's feet. My 3-year-old red Irish setter had been bringing ailing neighborhood pets to me for help for the last three months. No longer surprised by the presence of just such an animal on my patio, I went to work.
As a veterinarian and dog lover, I was of course aware of the numerous types of therapy dogs that assist disabled people. But it hadn't occurred to me that under my roof in the heart of Atlanta I might have my own therapy dog. I was discovering this now. Rather than helping people, however, Scarlett had an instinct for helping other animals. And she enlisted my veterinary skills in her efforts.
The first time Scarlett brought me a patient, I didn't understand what was going on. I'd returned from work to find a neighborhood puppy on the patio with Scarlett standing on alert nearby. Scarlett seemed eager for me to examine the tiny dog, nudging it toward my feet as if to say, "Look at this and see what you think."
I noted an inflamed eye that was watering excessively. I grabbed my medical bag, and only then did Scarlett sit down on the other side of the patio.
After cleaning the sick puppy's eye, I administered antibiotics and began speaking out loud—partly to Scarlett but mostly to myself: "This eye needs to be treated each day for several days. I wish I knew where the owners of this puppy lived so I could talk to them about further treatment."
Scarlett wagged her tail at the sound of my voice. Then, as if she knew the treatment was over, she got up and ushered the puppy off the patio and into the neighborhood. I was both amused and perplexed by my dog's actions, but didn't give it much thought as I settled down for my nap.
The next morning Scarlett didn't meet me at the door as she usually did when I returned from the emergency clinic. I called her name, but the big, friendly dog did not appear. I began to get worried.
I soon saw what was occupying Scarlett. The puppy from the previous morning was on my patio. It was trying to leave, but Scarlett was determined that it stay. Like a herding dog, Scarlett blocked the exit from the patio each time the puppy attempted to wander off.
Happy to see me, Scarlett barked and pushed the puppy my way. Then she flopped down on her belly—turning all responsibility over to me. I grabbed my medical bag and treated the eye. Only then did Scarlett let the puppy to leave the patio. This scene replayed over the next five days. On the fifth day, the puppy's eye was healed and I told Scarlett my work was done. The next day the patio was bare—but not for long.
In the months that followed, my quiet suburban neighbors watched as a parade of animals in various stages of disease or injury came and went from the patio behind my house. Each pet was accompanied by a canine nurse practitioner: Scarlett.
Scarlett presented patients with sore paws, infected ears, and minor cuts—even a kitten with a sore on the side of her neck. In each case I gave aftercare instructions to Scarlett, who followed them precisely. Animals that needed attention on a weekly basis appeared once a week. Cases that required daily treatment appeared every day. How Scarlett understood all of these instructions is beyond me.
Once winter arrived, the stream of patients slowed. One cold night as I was snuggled warmly in my bed, I thought I heard scratching at the patio door. I listened for a moment but heard nothing more, so I turned over and went back to sleep.
In the morning I went out to the patio to see if Scarlett had any appointments for the day. To my horror, five stiffened, newborn Doberman puppies lay by the door. They had succumbed to the freezing temperatures of the night and were only hours old at the time of their death. I was greatly saddened, but then my concern shifted to Scarlett.
She was curled up several feet away from the puppies. Her eyes were half-closed and she held her ears close to her drooping head. My heart broke. It was obvious she had tried to save these puppies from exposure, and now she seemed depressed and exhausted. I sat on the cold surface of the patio holding her head in my lap. How could I explain that it wasn't her fault?
"Scarlett," I said, "I think I heard you at the door, but I was so tired; I am so sorry. Please forgive me. I know you did your best. They were too young and it was too cold. We couldn't help them. Please come in and warm up."
Reluctantly Scarlett stood, sniffed the puppies one last time, and entered the house. The next day, after talking to my neighbor, I was able to reconstruct the events of the previous night. I learned that my neighbor's pregnant Doberman had gone outside for several hours the night before. Unfortunately, when the dog returned, nobody noticed she had given birth outside and then settled in for the night. I assume Scarlett found them sometime during the night and then brought them home one-by-one. We would never know why the mother abandoned her litter or why Scarlett never barked once she brought the puppies to the patio—maybe even she knew it was too late to save the puppies.
That night marked the end of a long line of sick and injured pets presented to me by Scarlett. I began taking her with me to the emergency clinic to try cheer her up and alleviate what by all counts seemed to be clinical depression. It soon became clear to me that this was the right thing to do.
Scarlett started making rounds in the clinic, checking each cage to make sure the occupant was OK. When she came upon an animal that needed attention, she would alert the staff by pacing back and forth in front of the cage. She became an invaluable member of the medical team and the staff soon began calling her Nurse Scarlett.
Scarlett continued to practice nursing until she died peacefully at age 15. Every time I see a helper animal, I remember Scarlett: the best nurse I ever had. And when I hear the phrase "pet-facilitated therapy," I wonder if it was coined for a large red dog with a bright smile, a wagging tail, and a need to help pets in trouble.
Linda King, DVM, practiced veterinary medicine for 33 years and currently lives in Georgia. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.