People’s lives are rich with variety. It is often difficult to decide which chapter of a life will reveal the heart of someone’s story in a single column. In the case of family nurse practitioner, Corinne Chabot, it was easy. This is a story about a relationship of profound mutual understanding between Corinne and an Australian Shepherd named Darby.
In 1981 on the west coast, Corinne met husband-to-be Dan Chabot, a paper mill engineer from Maine. “Mainers always move home,” said Corinne, smiling. After a few years together, she said, “We ended up over here. We had boys. We had dogs.”
Boys and dogs were the center of Corinne and Dan’s lives throughout their active parent years. “Roscoe (their first family dog) put Matt on the bus for Kindergarten, and he died the first Thanksgiving after Matt started college.” Then there was Magic, who overlapped Roscoe for several years. Corinne was heartsick when she lost Magic. “Life in the house is not right without a dog.”
So she found Darby in a litter of new Aussies. “He was the first one I picked up, and I just never put him down.”
A few months after Darby joined the Chabot household in 2005, Corinne’s youngest son graduated from high school. She had always done basic puppy classes and obedience training, but in an empty nest with extra time on her hands, Corinne was drawn to work more with Darby, a highly enthusiastic learner.
“Basic obedience got boring for both of us, so we started agility. He was so quick; we started doing the courses backwards.”
In no time, Corinne was doing advanced work with Darby. Agility work is a team sport, and Corinne soon realized she was the weak link on the team. She had two bad knees that caused her to limp, and made it difficult for Darby to follow her cues. When even walking became difficult, she had to have both knees replaced, and Darby was the key to her recovery.
“I was so happy to be able to run with him again.”
Corinne and Darby took a cross-county road trip to Minnesota. They competed in the CPE National Agility Trial, and Darby won his class.
While we sat at Corinne’s kitchen table, Darby kept a close eye on her, at the ready to show off if she gave him the opportunity. She soon did. Following Corinne’s gestures and barely containing his bounce, Darby leapt and sprinted through the house, then flew around the backyard, through his tunnel and over jumps.
That is one side of the Darby-Corinne team.
A few years ago Corinne took Darby through the process of becoming a certified therapy dog. “His instincts are so good. He’s so good with people,” she said. On her days off from nursing, Corinne brings her teammate to the hospital. It is the perfect balance to her hectic work days, she says, because her only responsibility is to visit and comfort.
As soon as Darby saw his hospital leash, he got serious. “His manner changes when he’s working.” We drove in to EMMC and made the rounds of the intensive care units.
Watching Darby walk through the hospital is like magic. All eyes are drawn to him, faces light up, smiles bloom, hands reach out. One somber group of people embraced in a hallway. They looked up and met Darby’s eyes, and he trotted over. From that circle of grief, suddenly you heard a soft chuckle, and they asked his name. One young man buried his face in Darby’s fur, and Darby stayed as long as he was needed.
“It takes people out of the ICU for a while,” Corinne told me. “When patients put a hand in that soft fur, it’s comforting. Sometimes their vital signs cool right down. It gives people a chance to relax a bit in a really difficult place.”
When Corinne and Darby look each other in the eye, you see true understanding. They have a bond that comes from deep mutual respect, affection, and a shared satisfaction in their work. That closeness transmits to the people they visit, and everyone feels better, even Darby’s favorite nurses.
Darby hops up onto a chair and leans in so the woman in bed can reach him. Her hand sinks into the fur of his neck, and she smiles.
A nurse pops in the door to see why the patient’s blood pressure had just improved.
“Every day we come here, he makes something special happen that I didn’t anticipate,” said Corinne. “He reads people so well. He makes connections.” Connections that help people heal. That’s pretty good work for a dog.