We had a therapy dog at Kartini Clinic for many years, and when the honorable Cleo, a black standard poodle, died it left a hole in our hearts.

I’ll never forget the day a small boy arrived in our office from another Children’s Hospital. His mother had removed him from the locked psychiatric ward where he had been placed for anorexia nervosa and terrible social anxiety. His transfer records labeled him as, “the worst case they had seen.” His mother was terrified we would say we couldn’t help them, and as her son lay on the exam table curled into fetal position, refusing to look up or speak, I did wonder.

In those days, my husband Steve managed Cleo and I asked Steve to bring her into the exam room that day. Now, standard poodles are not happy, lick-y, snuggly dogs. They tend to be aloof and watchful, and Cleo was exactly that type. She came in the room and simply sat next to the boy, who by then had slid off the exam table and was curled up on the floor. Short of lifting him up bodily there was little I could do about this unsanitary situation. His mother tried in vain to get him to stand up or sit up. Cleo just sat quietly. Suddenly, his small hand shot out and touched her curly black dog hair. She still sat quietly. Within a few minutes he had sat up and was petting her. It was the opening we needed, the small crack in his defenses that let us in and let us, ultimately, return him to his life.

When Cleo died Steve did not have the heart to replace her. We went for several years without any animal assisted therapy. Then came Ryla and with Ryla her therapist-trainer Lisa.

Cleo was tall and aloof. Ryla, a white miniature poodle-mix is enthusiastic, cuddly and cute. Her short legs take her everywhere the kids go, her round eyes take them all in, her certainty about being loved gives her free reign. She owns the clinic.  

Ryla is sometimes accompanied by her fellow dog therapist, a boxer. They, in turn, share the spotlight with a hedgehog, a chinchilla, and several hermit crabs. I kid you not: hermit crabs. It’s hard to predict what will reach the heart of a child who is hurting.

But it’s Ryla I’m writing about today.

Kartini Clinic specializes in children with all conditions of disordered eating. We have a partial hospital program that serves children from ages 6 to 18 with anorexia nervosa, purging eating disorders, binge eating disorders, ARFID (avoidant restrictive food intake disorder), cancer cachexia, failure to thrive, and just about anything that causes a young person to refuse food.  And because we are so specialized, we get children who are very ill and several who require tube feeds to save their lives. That’s right: to save their lives.

But tube feeds can be scary, and having to have a nasogastric tube (a tiny tube from the nose to the stomach through which life-giving fluids and calories can be sent) can be a frightening procedure for a child, and for their parents. Our nurse Sherrill places most nasogastric tubes right in our office. And her chief assistant is Ryla.

“Can you come in extra early?” Sherrill asked Lisa this week, “Our new patient is going to need a tube and she is terrified. I need Ryla’s help.”

So that little ball of white fluff jumped into the lap of that frightened child and made it possible for her to endure a scary procedure. Five minutes after the tube was placed, the child was laughing and petting the dog, who followed her upstairs for her first day of treatment.

Thank you Ryla, and thank you Lisa.

As Will Rogers once said: “If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.”