Kern County's only Disaster Stress Relief Dog died on Sunday, May 7. Sir Duke, 9, died after serving in countless loving capacities during his lifetime in Tehachapi.
He will be remembered for his service at the West Ranch Fire in August 2010. He was immediately stationed with the command staff, staying by the side of the commanding officer. This was the man assigned to make life and death decisions about when and where to place firefighters. The stress was tremendous, and the officer benefited in keeping Sir Duke by his side.
Sir Duke also worked with the families who were evacuated from their homes. Once again, he helped alleviate the traumatic stress people were experiencing by providing them with his own special brand of loving attention, comfort, hugs and kisses. He was especially attentive to those who had lost their own pets in the fire. Damp fur from human tears was a part of his day. He would go home each evening and vigorously roll on the ground to release the stress he had absorbed at his job. He was later awarded a Badge from CAL Fire Incident Command Team 9 for his "invaluable and crucial support."
Sir Duke trained as a therapy dog in 2009, shortly after I adopted him from the SCA Golden Retriever Rescue organization. His first assignment was visiting the Sierra Vista Assisted Living facility in Bear Valley Springs. One of his happiest moments was visiting a patient diagnosed with Alzheimer's. While she had been withdrawn and unresponsive for weeks, when Sir Duke walked in to visit her, she lit up like a Christmas tree! A big smile crossed her face and she reached out to pet him. Such is the potential relief and joy that a therapy dog can provide!
That summer, he began to work with the Library Booth at the Farmers Markets in downtown Tehachapi. He had been trained to "read." Yep, he was quite the talented dog! He was known as "The Reading Dog," and the kids loved him. He simply laid down, a big open book full of puppy pictures was laid on his forearms, and he was then instructed to stay in that position. There he was: reading a book full of pictures of himself as a puppy. He was quite joyful about that, and smiled a lot at passersby. By example, he encouraged the local children to read just like him. Often, they wanted their picture taken reading alongside Sir Duke.
He retired fairly young, and enjoyed life on an acreage outside of town with his family. One of his favorite outings was to go to the local Pioneer Hardware and greet everyone there. But his biggest love was playing ball. He would perform any trick in the world to play ball, including jumping through a hula hoop and slow dancing.
In his final years, he served as a greeter for the Red Tent Room that opened in his home in 2013. It's a specially designed and decorated room that provides a setting for counseling, support and community gatherings. Duke's job was to greet and escort people to the Red Tent Room. Then, he would plaster himself next to the closed door outside the room so that he was available to receive hugs as people left. Then he would return to escorting people to their cars, along with goodbye hugs.
A burial ceremony was held for Sir Duke on Sunday, May 15, up the mountain behind his home. It was attended by many whose lives he had touched, from age 8 to 94. Tehachapi's Gary Mazolla, local musician, wrote a heartwarming song just for Sir Duke, titled "Guardian Angel of the Heart" that he performed for the service.
Golden Retrievers are known as the Guardian Angels of the Dog World, and Sir Duke was truly a Guardian Angel of the Heart for all those whose paths he crossed. He is deeply missed.
Constance Williams adopted Sir Duke from the SCA Golden Retriever Rescue organization.