Last in our SHEserves series is the one and only Cheyenne Conrady and her amazing pup Phoebe. Cheyenne and Phoebe are the two best friends a girl ever had. Cheyenne is a model, stylist, Pisces and human. Phoebe is a bulldog, Boston Terrier, Taurus and canine. Both love cheese and snuggling.
Sometime around the holidays in 2016, I realized that my bulldog and I weren’t living up to our full potential. Or rather, that I wasn’t holding us to our highest potential.
You see, I rescued Phoebe in April of 2014 in Los Angeles (my home at the time). My boyfriend and I found her on Petfinder and from the moment I saw her photo, I knew she was The One. She was half Boston Terrier, half English Bulldog, full cuteness. We brought her home the first day we met her.
While both of us were experienced with rescue animals, neither of us had ever had a dog quite like Phoebe. Phoebe was rescued by a small organization from an abusive breeder, who had put an ad in the newspaper that he had a Boston Terrier/Bulldog mix that could be picked up for free. If she wasn’t picked up in 48 hours, he was going to kill her.
The woman who runs this rescue organization in Los Angeles met Phoebe’s breeder in a grocery store parking lot. He tossed her through his car window and bolted.
She was starved, beaten and terrified, but she was on her way to a second chance.
The first time I met her, she shook constantly and flinched any time I made a sudden movement. It remained that way long after we brought her home. She’d run and hide every time Nick laughed, because his laugh is loud and boisterous and she had come to associate loudness with anger. She flinched every time I reached for my keys, because she was used to having them thrown at her.
I slept with my hand in her crate for the first week, because the only way she could sleep is if she could rest her head against my hand.
Soon Phoebe had moved into our bed (onto my pillow to be exact), and had come to trust that we were not going to hurt her. This didn’t alleviate her fear of others immediately, but she did know she had a safe place and safe people with us. That was a start.
Throughout the first year of her adoption, we came to realize that things we never would have imagined could be triggers for Phoebe. Keys, shoes, clapping, the word “no”, touching her hips — these were all things that could send Phoebe right back into her abusive past. While she never showed any signs of aggression, the terror the slightest thing could evoke in her was concerning. We met with trainers, took her to dog classes, and I made it my personal mission to show her what love could be like.
Whether it was through our nurturing or her own kind heart, Phoebe made a complete turnaround. She was able to warm up to strangers (slowly but surely), showed complete trust to her brother (our other dog), and we even found out she loves children (they seem to be the only people she isn’t afraid of).
We were on an airplane once, and Phoebe and I were seated next to a clearly distraught man. Shoulders slumped, head down and tears falling, he remained that way until about halfway through the flight when Phoebe insisted on getting in his lap. Mortified, I apologized profusely and scolded her. We had flown a hundred times before and she had never broken the rules or defied me before.
The man told me it was fine, and in fact, asked if she could sit with him for a minute. I allowed it, and watched as she sniffed and licked him. Although he was a complete stranger, she showed him love and understanding, and he proceeded to laugh and rub her for the rest of the flight.
I think that was when the idea first occurred to me— that while I thought it was I had healed Phoebe, perhaps it was she that was the healer.
Eventually sometime around November 2016, I decided to turn my curiosity into action. I scoured the Internet for information on how to go about certifying an animal as a therapy dog. What I found was minimal and not too efficient to my dismay, but I did find one website that listed the closest trainers for Therapy Dog Certification to my area. Unfortunately, they were mostly listed in the surrounding states.
I reached out to the closest volunteer to me, a woman named Kim who was located just over the border in Kentucky. Unsure of how to begin, I sent her a quick email telling her just a few things about us: that Phoebe was my best friend, she was very empathetic toward people and that I thought maybe we could find a way to give back to our community together.
She quickly responded and informed me that she worked with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, and talked me through the application and testing process. Basically, through this program, I would have to fill out an application and send over Phoebe’s vet records (she’d have to have all the necessary shots to be around people, especially those who may be ill). Then, we would undergo a series of tests, “trial-runs” at various therapy locations, where Kim would observe us and pass or fail us.
I filled out our application and we visited Kim for the first time shortly thereafter. We had to pass a behavioral test first, where we proved that Phoebe could sit, stay, etc., and that she showed no aggression to strangers. Once we passed that test and Kim had briefed me on the requirements for therapy dogs, we began scheduling our first therapy visit.
Our first visit was at a very small nursing home near Kim’s hometown. I hadn’t been to a nursing home in years, and Phoebe had never been in an environment similar to this, so I was a bit nervous. The visit was short, under an hour, and we met 10-15 people who lived in the home. Many of them were immobile and/or connected to large machines, which was a concern for me because large, loud objects sometimes frightened Phoebe.
However, she proved all of my concerns wrong and remained calm and kind throughout the entire visit.
The next visit was the one I was most excited for: reading to children at an elementary school. This was the activity I really envisioned Phoebe and I doing once we were certified. She and I both love children, she is never afraid of them and I know they love her.
We arrived at the school and entered a classroom of 2nd grade students. The teacher took me aside and explained that we’d be working with the students who struggled with reading. We would go out in the hall, and these students would read to Phoebe for practice. She had found this method to be effective because the children feel more comfortable “reading to the dog”, while I can sit quietly and only step in to help if they struggle.
The child we were working with that day was told to choose a book and meet us in the hall. He staggered over to the bookcase and thought long and hard before finally finding the right book. We walked out into the hall together, and I introduced Phoebe to him. He shook her paw and told her his name, and then we all sat down together.
He explained that he’d chosen Clifford Goes to Hollywood as our book for the day, because he thought Phoebe would most like to hear a book about dogs and he had heard she used to live in Los Angeles.
His consideration for her brought tears to my eyes.
Throughout his reading, he hardly needed help and only stumbled over the larger words. He laughed at the funny parts, even though he’d read it before, because reading it to Phoebe felt like showing it to someone for the first time again. He pet her during the “scary” parts, and when he was done, asked me if she liked it. She licked him and sat in his lap and didn’t want to leave. I knew we were where we were supposed to be.
We passed that test with flying colors, and Kim told me she saw exactly why I had brought Phoebe in for testing that day. We still had one more test.
Our final test was at a much larger nursing home than the first — with more than 100 patients. It felt much more official and I was nervous again, although Kim assured me we’d be less than half an hour there. She just wanted to see Phoebe in an environment closer to a hospital, with many patients and lots of equipment.
We started our visit in the mental health wing, where many individuals with disabilities lived. Because there were lots of unexpected noises and movements in this wing, I was on high alert for any sign of terror in Phoebe, worrying we wouldn’t pass this test. To my surprise, she completely kept her cool and trusted that we were fine together. If she got nervous, she would just come back to me.
This “short” visit turned into nearly two hours as the word spread that we were there. Other patients from separate wings had heard a dog was present and wanted to be visited, but many could not leave their beds, so we visited everywhere from private rooms to the lunchroom. Phoebe crawled up on beds, met people with unique equipment and dispositions, and didn’t mind when passerby squealed at her.
She treated everyone with patience and kindness, and when we left, they all made us promise to come back.
As soon as we returned to the car, Phoebe collapsed in the backseat and slept the entire way home. I had never seen her so tired. I realized how exhausting this must be for her as well — not just physically, but emotionally. I know that she can sense others’ feelings, whether they be excitement or sadness, worry or joy. This is one of her strengths, but I imagine it also leads to our visits being quite draining for her.
It made me realize that we’ll have to learn our limits together, and that in doing this with me, she’s trusting that I’ll look out for her so that she can look out for others.
That was our final test for Therapy Dog Certification, and once we passed, there was a mountain of online paperwork for me to do and then we were done. The fatigue of the whole process (we had rushed to become certified in just two months, so the travel and visits had added up) and the changes that new experiences bring had changed us both. I had truly seen what Phoebe could do for others, as well as for me, and the pride I felt for her was bigger than ever before.
She was even better with strangers and children in regular life too. To this day, I watch her with children or friends of mine when they’re upset and wonder where she gets such a gift from. Sometimes I hold her and ask her, “Who made you so good and sweet?”, wishing she could respond and tell me how someone with such a rough start could still believe in and love others. That type of wisdom is something the world now truly needs. I would love to have that answer and pass it along.
But instead, she just turns and licks my cheek.
ICYMI: Thanks to everyone who guestblogged for our SHEserves series! Check out the others in our #SHEserves series with Courtney Ligon , Jackie Klaver, Shawna Wilson, Stephanie Peterson, and Amanda Jurls.