Faithful friend adapts
Dog tells story of her master’s stroke in local children’s book
SARANAC LAKE — When Laura Landon Cook’s father had a stroke, she needed a way to explain it to her twins, who were in the first grade at the time. Bruce Landon, her father, had come out of the stroke with aphasia, trouble with spoken communication.
Aphasia can happen with a stroke, or with traumatic brain injury that affects the left side of the brain, the command center of language.
“It was really hard to explain what happened to their Poppa and why he can’t talk anymore,” said Connie Landon, Laura’s mother. Laura, a teacher, decided she needed a book she could share with her children — but there weren’t any.
So she wrote one herself. “Ruby and the Big Guy” is available now through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Written from Ruby’s point of view, it tells the story of Bruce’s stroke and aphasia for first or second-grade readers.
Dogs and books have been an important part of the Landon family’s life for a long time. For many years, Bruce Landon worked as a caretaker of a private estate.
“It was dog heaven,” said Connie. “When he was a caretaker, he had a dog with him at all times.”
During the interview, Bruce was quiet but not unexpressive. He could interrupt with a gesture, or point, or shake his head. His blue eyes flashed occasionally with frustration, as words rushed to the surface but then stayed just out of reach.
He gestured to me to follow him into the other room, where a map of the estate hung on the wall. Two hundred acres of mountain, stream and pond. His eyes lingered on the map, then swept back to me: It was a beautiful place.
Ruby, Bruce’s yellow Labrador, had lived a happy life riding around with him in the truck, or snoozing in his office while Bruce worked. The Landons had always had dogs, but Ruby was special.
“He just started working with her when he realized her personality was so nice,” said Connie. He began to think she might make a good therapy dog. Ruby took commands well, and she didn’t worry much. “She loved everybody, but she didn’t get herself in a tizzy over anything.”
Therapy dogs, however, have to pass some pretty rigorous tests. Bruce took Ruby to a therapy dog trainer near Canton, who told him what Ruby would need to work on.
“She said she was going to be testing in a few weeks,” Connie said. Bruce started getting Ruby ready for the tests.
In one test, Ruby had to lay down and wait calmly when Bruce left the room, and stay down until he came back. She was exposed to walkers, wheelchairs and hospital equipment so it wouldn’t frighten her. But the hardest test of all was a plate of cookies.
“She’s a Lab, so she’s a pig. They wanted her to be able to walk past a plate of cookies set in the middle of the floor,” said Connie. Bruce walked Ruby past the cookies twice, reminding her gently: “With me, with me.”
“She passed with flying colors,” said Connie.
As a certified therapy dog, Ruby then had a job: Bruce took her to Petrova Elementary School to work with the kids. Some kids would practice language skills by reading to her. Ruby always listened patiently. Bruce would take some of the older kids outdoors and teach them how to give Ruby commands, like “sit” and “fetch.”
“Ruby loved it. She’d be really excited to get there,” said Connie.
When Bruce suffered the stroke in February 2012, his family was devastated. At first they thought he might never walk again. As he recovered, doctors diagnosed him with aphasia. Inside his brain, he’s the same guy as ever, but he faces challenges in communication and using his right arm.
He feels sad, and his dog feels it, too. A year after the stroke, they moved from the estate to the house they now live in on Stevenson Lane. It’s beautiful, with a yard sloping down to the Saranac River, but it’s not the same, says Bruce with a sweeping gesture and a headshake.
“Ruby and the Big Guy,” reminds readers — and the author — that what’s really important is being near the ones we love. When Bruce was in the hospital, Ruby had to stay at a friend’s house. Not knowing what had happened, she wondered whether she’d ever see her people again. For Ruby, being taken to visit Bruce in the hospital was a big relief.
“It was good therapy for Laura to write the book,” said Connie. Eventually, they were able to bring Ruby back to the school to visit the kids. Although they have not been able to resume their old routine at school, Ruby and Bruce still spend their days together.
They’ve added another, younger dog to the family, and Connie thinks she might make a therapy dog one day, “if she calms down.”
Meanwhile, they take a lot of walks, and Bruce throws the ball for Ruby. Maybe not as many times as she wants him to, but enough.
“Ruby and the Big Guy” by Laura Landon Cook is available on Amazon and through the Community Store on Main Street, Saranac Lake.