ALBANY, Ore. – Ember the golden retriever may never have as many friends, Facebook followers or book deals as JJ, her predecessor at Samaritan Evergreen Hospice House.
Or then again, she might. Either way, it’s OK with the staff members at Evergreen. Right now, they’re happy to just have Ember being Ember.
The 7 1/2-week-old puppy has visited Evergreen twice, part of her training to become socialized and learn more about her new line of work.
Both times, she came with some of her brothers and sisters, who will travel soon to new homes across the country: some to take on their own therapy dog jobs, others simply to be pets.
Ember belongs to registered nurse Tracy Calhoun, a breeder, therapy dog trainer and crisis response dog trainer. Calhoun was looking for a successor for her dog JJ, who served five-and-a-half years as Evergreen’s therapy dog before losing her battle with lymphoma just after Christmas 2017.
Ember was the pup in the litter that showed all the right stuff. Her formal name is “Calhoun’s Get the Party Started,” but she became “Ember” because she had a spark; the fiery personality Calhoun was seeking.
It may sound counterintuitive, but shy, retiring dogs don’t often make good therapy animals, she said. It’s better if a dog is eager to explore a new situation and make a friend.
“She’s confident, she’s bold,” Calhoun said of Ember. “She’s sassy. JJ’s voice was sassy on her Facebook page.”
Golden retrievers are often picked as therapy dogs, she added, because they love people. “They tend to be, `Hi! I would love to say hello to you!“’
JJ wasn’t the only therapy dog to have worked with local hospice patients. Marfa, a mixed Lab-border collie, started hospice therapy work with Samaritan in 2006. Callie, another of Calhoun’s golden retrievers, served Samaritan with such distinction before her death in 2011 that Samaritan Albany General Hospital Foundation now has a pet therapy fund in her name.
Today, furry visitors include a mixed breed named Chaco, Marfa’s successor; and Cupcake, an outdoor cat who has made the hospice center his home.
JJ, however, may be the best known, Calhoun said. She always seemed to have a sixth sense about who at Evergreen might need her most.
Built in August 2012 at Evergreen Place near the Mennonite Village, Evergreen Hospice provides respite care for families and symptom management for patients in a homelike setting.
JJ spent 12-hour shifts with Calhoun. She knew which areas she wasn’t allowed to enter and when to keep herself secluded, such as times when another animal happened to be visiting.
She would poke her nose into a new patient’s room and wait patiently for Calhoun to give the OK before introducing herself. She always seemed to know when someone needed a hug, trotting through the center and waiting for the person to squat down so she could place her paws on his or her shoulders.
Calhoun never trained JJ to stand as silent sentry during the “walkouts,” a procedure during which staff line the halls in respect as staffers walk with the gurney to take a patient’s body to its final rest. JJ simply did it on her own.
“I’ve never had a dog as intuitive,” Calhoun said.
JJ had more than 95,000 followers on her Facebook page and a viral video that prompted a book deal. People would contact Calhoun and tell her how much the dog meant to them: Some even told her they had put aside suicide plans because JJ gave them hope.
A publisher who became one of JJ’s fans contacted Calhoun about writing up the therapy dog’s story. “JJ’s Journey: A Story of Heroes and Heart,” was released in October and is available online through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
“It’s crazy, it really is. Just the idea,” said Calhoun, who said she doesn’t know yet if another book is in the offing. “‘Cause really, honestly, in my wildest dreams, I never thought.”
JJ was diagnosed with lymphoma in December 2016 and underwent chemotherapy at Oregon State University. “She handled it like a champ,” Calhoun said, and was able to come back to work for almost another year.
As December 2017 progressed, Calhoun knew JJ wouldn’t be around much longer. She brought her to Evergreen on Christmas Eve to say goodbye.
JJ died Dec. 29, but was nurturing others – sniffing and licking the new litter of puppies – even in her last few hours.
A uterine infection as a younger dog kept JJ from having puppies of her own. She nannied them instead, no matter what the breed.
“She just adored puppies,” Calhoun said. “And she figured every puppy born was hers.”
In a way, Calhoun added, it’s just as well that Ember was a nanny legacy, not a daughter. That way, no one will expect her to be JJ’s clone.
As used to the circle of life as she is, it’s still hard to be at Evergreen without JJ sometimes, Calhoun said. She’s not there during the walkouts. She isn’t giving hugs.
And every once in a while, someone who doesn’t know she’s gone will rattle the lid on the jar of dog treats – a sound that would bring JJ running no matter where she might be in the building – and nobody comes.
That may change once Ember starts to learn her way around, however. Calhoun plans to bring her on regular training rounds and may have her start spending half shifts with her when she’s a few months older.
Staffers and visitors agree: Therapy animals are an important component of care at Evergreen.
“I think it’s great, especially here, because it’s kind of a somber place,” said Nicholle Threatt, who came to Evergreen with her four children on Wednesday. “Even if you’re not a dog person – everyone likes puppies.”
Melinda Papen, director of Samaritan Evergreen Hospice, was eager to see Ember and meet her other siblings during Wednesday’s visit.
“When they come, they make so many people happy,” Papen said. “It’s therapeutic. It enhances the human-animal connection. For some people, it’s very healing and calming.”
Calhoun said she’s never had anyone object to a dog’s presence, or even worry about allergies. Instead, people just seem to relax a little when a furry companion is in the room.
“It’s the one smile in a sad time for people to remember,” she said.
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