I will never forget the day we met Velvet. Labrador Rescue had found what they believe to be a perfect match! We were so excited when we received the call that we were approved, and the only thing that remained was our actually meeting her. We brought Gypsy along, as directed, to see how both dogs responded to each other. They were fine, so papers were signed and Velvet became ours!
She was a funny looking lab. Although a purebred, certainly a mill puppy. We would find out later that she had come from one of the worst puppy mills in Pennsylvania. She had a long neck and a muzzle that looked as if she was a bit German Shepard, but a wonderously shiny coat of black and eyes so soft they drew you in. Quite the contrast from our butter ball Gypsy, but breathtakingly beautiful.
Street fairs, parades, walks up Main Street, strolls in the park and endless basic training at Mid-Jersey Companion Dog Training Club, she was a well-socialized, friendly character who attracted attention wherever she went. A proud dog, and she showed it in the way she'd hold her head, nose tilting toward the air, giving the impression of royalty.
Velvet began her career as a Therapy Dog, visiting our local Veterans' Home. The old soldiers would wait patiently for her visits, and as memory failed, sometimes called her by other dogs' names, possibly remembering the names of their dogs long ago. We enjoyed our visits, and were quite pleased to add weekly visits to a local nursing home. SEPTEMBER 11TH - A CALL TO SERVICE American Flags at half staff, endless radio and tv coverage, pictures, emails, phone calls...I was on emotional overload. Needing a break from this tragedy, I took my Velvet over to the park where we sat at a picnic table. Velvet barked at squirrels, sniffed trees. It was quiet and cool, the wind blew lightly as we walked along.
We found ourselves at the playground where a woman and one very little girl were sitting. The little girl, a Downs Syndrome child, reached out to pet Velvet - the mother was nervous at first, afraid that the girl might pull Velvet's ears or tail. Just as we though, the girl pulled a little, petted a little, and smiled. The mother took the girl and lead her to the slide, but she came back, walked right past Velvet, and climbed up into my lap and gave me a hug! A simple hug from this sweet little girl, and for that brief moment, I felt an overwhelming connection with humanity. On any normal day, I would have walked right past these people, but for a short time, my mind was far away from the worries and concerns thanks to one of the best therapy dogs I know!
The call for help came a few days later. Therapy dogs were needed at the World Trade Crisis Center at Pier 94 in New York City. What would have been a 45 minute ride into the city from NJ, turned out to be just over two hours. We carpooled with two Golden Retrievers, my Velvet and Marbles, a therapy cat. As we entered the city, we were stopped at several security points, the police checking inside and out and underneath our vehicle. We parked in a roof-top lot. Velvet had always been comfortable in elevators, but we never anticipated the challenge of the escalator. One missed step and her nails would be caught in the teeth of the tread. Thank God for the 'over' command!
We walked down the streets of New York City, past walls of pictures posted of the missing and the lost. We climbed over sandbags, stepped around banks of telephone set up for the families, National Guard with guns drawn, smells of the burning buildings and smoke, and my Velvet remained calm.
We worked from 10 AM to 9 PM that first day, trying to comfort the family members who were being prepared to apply for death certificates. They refused to believe their loved ones were gone. Some people tought Velvet was a bomb-sniffing dog...some, a cadaver dog. One man remarked, "she's alive!" His cat, he said, was left behind in his apartment and would surely die.
With nowhere to take a break, we were surrounded by the wall of teddy bears, the notes left behind - the posters of the missing were at every turn. We went outside the building for a moment, but Velvet was still "working" as a police officer bent down and buried his face in her fur, and he cried.
I will never forget that first night, as we stood in the parking deck overlooking the Empire State Building lit up in red, white and blue. We hugged each other and our dogs. We cried. We looked toward the south to see the smoke and the flames and knew we'd remember the pain and the horror forever...and we were in awe of the power of our dogs.
Later would come the Delta Dogs, the TDI Dogs, the Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs and others, but for now, we were alone with our thoughts and our dogs. Remarkable dogs - therapy dogs that were used to nursing homes and parades and public events...now charged with an unbelievable task, and they comforted us.
Our last visit to the Pier was in November, 2001 when New York held the memorial at Ground Zero for the familes of the deceased. They expected 2,000 to 4,200 people - they had over 11,000. We were staged at Pier 94 waiting for the ceremony to conclude. New York City bussed the people from Ground Zero to the Pier to receive the urns of ash from the site.
A lonely bagpipe woefully played "Amazing Grace" as the people filed in. They stood in never-ending lines to receive the black boxes which held the urns. They were facing the reality of their own personal loss. There were dignataries from foreign countries, movie stars, politicians, the Red Cross, FEMA, the ASPCA...and there were our dogs, stoic and brave, and we cried.
Velvet was entered into the New Jersey Veterinary Association Hall of Fame for her therapy work in relation to September 11th.
In 2005, she was again inducted into the NJVA Hall of Fame - Therapy Category, returning to therapy work at the Veterans' Home after amputation of her hind leg due to osteosaroma. Velvet was the only dog to receive two such awards.
She also was a guest on Dr. Brian Vovnick's television show, "Pet Stop" on NJN, and was among the first to join the Therapy Dog "Reading with Children" Program in our town.
Velvet was also featured in Dog Fancy Magazine, August, 2005.
"We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached. Unable to accept its awful gaps, we still would live no other way. We cherish memory as the only certain immortality, never fully understanding the necessary plan."...Irving Townsend