Gifted Utah therapy dog ‘knew his mission was finished’
Animal therapy • Service dog, Capitol Hill regular, died in January.
Published: April 5, 2014 12:23PM
Updated: April 4, 2014 09:10PM
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| Courtesy A studio photo taken last August of Putter, a Shih Tzu rescued by Douglas Springmeyer. The Springmeyers rescued Putter from an animal shelter in 2006, which was fortuitous. Putter had a steadying effect on Springmeyer, quelling his tremors. Putter died in January shortly after Springmeyer underwent surgery for the disorder.

Putter, a gentle dog with dark watery eyes, was at home in the Utah Capitol.

Welcomed at closed-door talks with the governor, Senate president and House speaker, the most he contributed was a snore or two. He was a quiet, calming influence.

But this winter’s legislative session was to be his last.

The Shih Tzu, a six-year companion and service dog to health industry lobbyist and former Assistant Attorney General Douglas Springmeyer, died Jan. 13 — just weeks after Springmeyer underwent surgery for the tremors Putter helped control.

“The coincidence is inescapable. It was like he knew his mission was finished and he could go,” Springmeyer said. “I feel very selfish every time my mind goes there, because he missed out on the chance to not be constantly of service and on alert.”

The sensory and healing powers of dogs are legend. They are able to sniff out cancer cells, detect dangerously low blood sugar levels in diabetics and warn of oncoming seizures. They assist the blind and disabled and give cheer and comfort to the desperately ill and dying.

Putter, it was discovered, was able to predict the onset of “essential tremors,” a reaction to adrenaline surges in moments of stress.

“He developed this cue. He would give me a sign by trembling himself when he could sense I was nervous. What it was that Putter could tell about my physiology we were never certain. But I was grateful,” said Springmeyer. “I would pet him and hug him and that would be enough for me to break that cycle and reduce my stress.”

An unexpected talent • The Springmeyers rescued Putter from an animal shelter in 2006 and his special talent wasn’t immediately obvious.

He was impossibly shy and a slow mover, though once he got going he built up steam — hence the name, Putter, explained Springmeyer.

“He was a mess. There was no evidence he had been abused, but he had separation anxiety as bad as any dog I had ever met.”

It took a year to break through Putter’s behavioral problems. But he grew to trust the family and forge a fortuitous bond.

Springmeyer was the state attorney assigned to the Department of Health when, in 2008, the medicine he used to control his shaking stopped working. Then at age 60, he wondered if he’d have to retire.

“The tremors would cause my voice to shake — not a great way, as an attorney, to instill confidence in people,” said the now-63-year-old.

One afternoon, by chance, Springmeyer took Putter with him to a doctor’s appointment.

“My doc said, ‘You’re much better today. Is the medicine working better?’” he recalled. “We decided it must be the calming influence of the dog. I certainly always noticed that I felt great when Putter was with me. I hadn’t intellectualized that it influenced my tremors.”

With a letter of endorsement from Springmeyer’s doctor, Putter became a service dog.

“Under Utah law and federal law, if you have a chronic disabling condition and an animal is medically verified to provide a therapeutic effect and trained, so as not to be a disruption in public, that’s all that’s required,” he explained.

Putter had to go through some training to ensure he could abide any situation. “Kids would run up to him and pet him without asking,” Springmeyer said. “We had to make sure he was OK with that. He had developed this cue [to tremors] and we reinforced that to let him know it was a desired behavior.”

Putter accompanied the attorney everywhere in a red sling that he wore around his waist. “I never had to worry about functioning at work again until my retirement in 2012,” he said.

A dog and a boy • Retirement freed up time for Springmeyer and an opportunity to share Putter’s gifts with others.

On visits to his terminally ill mother at a senior center, the attorney had noticed the cheer that his tiny white companion brought to the residents. “It would take me 20 to 30 minutes to get from the front door to my mom’s room,” he said.

Putter enjoyed the attention, too, so Springmeyer had him certified through Intermountain Therapy Animals.

In the winter of 2012, on Putter’s first day as a therapy dog, the duo encountered a 10-year-old boy who was sitting alone in the lobby of the University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer Institute.

The boy’s father, a single dad with serious cancer, had driven eight hours the night before to get to the hospital for chemotherapy treatment, according to Kris Nelson, a social worker at Huntsman.

But it was flu season and kids weren’t allowed in the infusion room.

The boy had been sitting alone for hours when Putter approached him.

“I had not made much headway with this child … but the boy related that, ‘animals like me a lot,’ and asked questions about Putter, and [Springmeyer] and the boy had a nice long conversation about him being a rescue dog, and about the boy’s pet, all while the child was holding the dog in his lap,” Nelson wrote in a “thank you” note to Springmeyer.

“The little boy left with a picture of Putter, and he was able to tell his dad stories about Putter, and this helped the dad feel better, too.”

‘The last dog he saw’ • At the U.’s burn center, Putter accomplished for a 3-year-old burn victim what therapists couldn’t.

The boy “was in such pain, and the physical therapist said there was nothing they could do to motivate him. But when he saw Putter, he said, ‘Can I take the dog for a walk?’ Springmeyer said.

While on “rounds” once at the U., Springmeyer dropped in on a 95-year-old in intensive care who happened to be Rep. Patrice Arent’s father. “He wasn’t comatose, but lethargic and drifting in and out, but when he saw Putter, he just really lit up. Putter was the last dog he saw,” recalls the Millcreek Democrat.

In 2013, Springmeyer was hired to lead the government-relations team for Molina Healthcare of Utah and Putter became his Capitol Hill sidekick.

“The governor joked I was the only guy who got to bring his blankie with him,” Springmeyer said. “If I had to create a shtick to make me an interesting person, I couldn’t have thought of a better one than Putter. ... He was definitely a part of me. Losing him was like losing an arm.”

In November 2013 Springmeyer underwent surgery to implant electrodes in his brain to control his tremors. It worked.

But weeks after his recovery, Putter came down with a bacterial infection that antibiotics couldn’t kick.

“I visited him three times a day [for more than a week],” Springmeyer said. “He was in the oxygen tent in my arms and it was clear he was not going to recover, so we decided to stop interventions. Nature took its course and he was gone.”

Springmeyer is healthy and tremor-free but he grieves for Putter.

The Springmeyers have had many pets and expect to welcome more to their home. But there will be no replacing Putter.

“My heart aches to be up at Huntsman with him,” he said. “I hope to have that opportunity again, but he was special.”

kstewart@sltrib.com

Twitter: @KStewart4Trib

Pet therapist

There’s more demand in Utah for therapy dogs than there are capable pets, said Kathy Klotz, executive director at Intermountain Therapy Animals.

But not all dogs are good candidates. “It all pivots on the dog’s temperament. After that, skills can be taught, but it takes training,” she said.

An explanation of steps required to certify your pet can be found at www.therapyanimals.org.