Momentous Moments With a "Magical" Dog

By Corrie Vaus
|  Wednesday, Dec 16, 2009  |  Updated 3:30 PM PDT
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This Dog's Life Made a Difference

Channel 4 San Diego

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This Dog's Life Made a Difference

A San Diego therapy dog became a celebrity for his ability to connect with patients who were dying, according to our partners at Cox 4.
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A San Diego therapy dog in the twilight of his life became a celebrity for his ability to create a magical moment with people who also had few moments left to share.

Baxter, a golden retriever/chow mix, was 12-years-old (84 in human years) when he found his real purpose. Every week for hours at a time, he comforted patients at San Diego Hospice.

"It was as if I carried an angel on my shoulder everywhere I went with him," said Melissa Joseph, Baxter's owner and a hospice volunteer. "The remarkable change that took place not only in their faces, but a lot of time in their pain levels."

For seven years, Joseph and Baxter patrolled the halls of San Diego hospice together. They' poke their heads into each room. If invited, Joseph and Baxter would come inside and comfort the dying patient.

"I had this creature that was like illuminated as soon as people saw him," Joseph said. "Everybody wanted to touch him. Everybody wanted to meet Baxter."

But like the patients he treated, old age took its toll on Baxter. Eventually, he couldn't even walk. But that didn't prevent him from offering some furry comfort for the hospice patients. Instead, Joseph used a wagon to pull Baxter around the hospice.

"I would take the wagon and put it adjacent to the bed and if the patient allowed me, which most of them did, we would transfer him to the patient's bed,” Joseph said.

Joseph first met Baxter 17 years ago, when the dog was just two years old. She adopted him, and right off the bat, the two were inseperable.Wherever she went, he went.

So naturally Baxter was there seven years ago when she and her husband trained to be hospice volunteers.

"They said you have to get this dog certified, he's magical and so they sensed something about his presence,” Joseph said.

A week later, Baxter tried out and aced the test. He became an official therapy dog, and their team was born.

Soon, Baxter became a regular at the hospice -- and a familiar, friendly face for the patients. He was invited to birthdays and even movies.  He made TV appearances and County supervisors signed a proclamation. Now, in San Diego County, July 21 is Baxter Day.

“Who would have thought?" Joseph said.

For seven years, Joseph and Baxter together comforted humans in their final moments. This year, Joseph had to do the same for Baxter. At age 19 (yes, 133 in human years), the friendly dog with the buzz cut had to be put to sleep.

Cards have poured in from Baxter's friends -- nearly 200 from kids.

"And I have every one of those. I've read every one of those,” Joseph said.

Joseph wanted make sure her moments with Baxter lasted forever -- and wanted those who never met the dog to experience his compassion, too. So she wrote a book, "Moments with Baxter," a collection of true stories of Baxter's compassion.

"I would think to myself, 'Oh my God,' you know, 'I want to hold onto this moment forever.' Joseph said. "I live with this gift and I must do something with it and so, the book was created."

"Moments with Baxter" is for sale at most bookstores and on Amazon.com. Proceeds benefit charities and in Melissa's words and pictures, the book highlights some of Baxter's relationships -- with the young, the old. All ages. 

Channel 4 San Diego contributed to this report.

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