The COVID-19 pandemic had recently hit the United States, and Dr. Susan Ryan was getting to the end of her shift in the ER of the Rose Medical Center in Denver, Colorado. This was the beginning, when the United States was just starting to see identified cases, and there were so many unknowns and a lot of fear. No one knew what they were facing.
Dr. Ryan was understandably emotionally drained due to the level of anxiety she was working under, when Wynn, the 11-month-old puppy she was raising to become a service dog walked by. “I just want to sit here with you,” Dr. Ryan remembers saying.
The social worker who looks after the puppy at the hospital snapped a photo — Dr. Ryan sitting on the floor with her face mask and face shield on and her arm wrapped around the back end of a calm Lab puppy proudly wearing her Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) vest. Wynn helped Dr. Ryan get through an exhausting shift, just like our dogs have helped us manage social distancing from family and friends. The picture went viral, and you could find Dr. Ryan and Wynn all over the internet.
Now a year old (her birthday was in April), Wynn will most likely be with Dr. Ryan until November. At that time, she will return to a CCI facility to start her service dog training, be matched with a human and officially become a working Canine Companions for Independent Assistance dog.
The CCI’s Labrador, Golden Retriever and Lab/Golden mixes are bred by volunteers before being sent to a volunteer puppy raiser, like Dr. Ryan, to help them socialize and learn basic commands. While Wynn was still at the home of her breeder caretaker there was a live video feed that Dr. Ryan was able to watch. Dr. Ryan knew what kind of dog the puppy was going to be from the very beginning. Wynn was the runt of the litter and the only female. She would climb up on a crate and then do flying squirrel leaps on top of her unsuspecting brothers. Dr. Ryan was able to observe all these shenanigans virtually. “Wynn was so tiny, but she has this fiercest personality,” she says.
With the puppy raisers, it’s important that CCI’s dogs be socialized, which is why Dr. Ryan brings Wynn to the hospital with her. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Wynn would be walked around to the different nurses’ stations where Dr. Ryan would ask the charge nurse who needed a visit the most. This activity stopped once the hospital started receiving COVID patients.
During the pandemic, Dr. Ryan takes Wynn to the hospital’s social worker’s office. While Dr. Ryan starts her shift, Wynn usually gets to go out for a walk before settling into her shared office on a comfy dog bed. During the day, staff members are welcome to come visit the special pup.
After letting the social worker know that a visit is needed, the guest sanitizes his or her hands. The social worker graciously gives up her office to Wynn but not before turning on meditation music and laying down a warm blanket where the visitor can comfortably snuggle away the stress of working in a hospital during a global crisis. After a guest leaves, she will sanitize her hands again, and Wynn’s coat and vest will be wiped down preparing her for the next person who needs her help.
At publication, we are still learning more about COVID-19 and humans, dogs and cats. At this point we know she can carry the virus on her (like anything else), which is why wiping down her coat and vest is important and why her vest is washed with her mom’s scrubs after every shift. Although Wynn has not been tested for COVID-19, if her health changes or the CCI vets recommend it, Dr. Ryan will have her tested.
Dr. Ryan knows that Wynn is happy at the hospital. The puppy adores attention. She has her favorite humans at work she’ll pull at to try and get to, which is a habit Dr. Ryan is working on changing!
If all goes as planned in November, Dr. Ryan will take Wynn to a CCI training facility. There Wynn will meet her trainer and learn even more commands, the entire time being evaluated to see what kind of disability she will be trained to support.
When it’s time for Wynn to be matched with the human she’ll spend her working life with, Dr. Ryan will return for a reunion. Wynn will remember Dr. Ryan as her first mom and be excited to see her, but she’ll also be anxious to start her new life and the new job she has been trained to do.
“It’s hard,” Dr. Ryan explains. “But I can also tell you now, having done it, it’s remarkable to know you are doing it for someone and changing their life.”
Working Dogs Are Just Like Us
Q: What type of gear does Wynn use?
A: She uses a Gentle Leader and vest provided by CCI.
Q: Does Wynn have a nickname?
A: Her nickname is Billie goat because she bounces around and jumps on and off things.
Q: If Wynn had a superpower what would it be and why?
A: Her tail. When she is overwhelmed with joy, it quivers side to side. Nothing can keep you from smiling when you experience it.
Q: What is the funniest thing Wynn does?
A: She flying squirrel leaps. She does this to initiate play or pounce on a ball or when she thinks she’s surprising one of my other Labs.
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