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Essay: Dr. Max, the four-legged healer

Kevin Scott Stubing, center, and Madeline Emma Stubing,

Kevin Scott Stubing, center, and Madeline Emma Stubing, right, are the grandchildren of Opinions writer Carol Cott Gross, with Carol's poodle, Max, in Lake Worth, Fla., in February. Photo Credit: Herb Gross

The cardiac surgeon in the emergency room at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset asked me seriously, “Mrs. Gross, do you want to speed your husband’s recuperation?”

“Yes!” I said.

The doctor laughed, took out his prescription pad and wrote, “A big dog for long walks.”

Earlier that day, Herb wasn’t walking much or laughing. He had failed a stress test and a heart bypass was scheduled for the next morning.

When I’m nervous, I crack wise, so after the Top Surgeon (Long Islanders don’t use ordinary docs) explained the procedure, he said he was going home for a good night’s sleep.

“Doctor, don’t argue with anyone at home,” I joked.

“No worries!” he assured us. “My wife’s out of town, and I’ll be with the love of my life.”

Nope, he wasn’t having an affair. His beloved was a goldendoodle.

Herb smiled for the first time that day, telling the doctor about Louie, our beloved black poodle that had died a few months earlier. And then Herb outed me, the big meanie married to him for almost half a century, for excuse-afying every time he suggested another dog: We were too old to train a puppy, the house didn’t smell doggy, and it would be too hard at our age to take the dog when we went to Florida in the winter.

But now in the spotlight, on the eve of Herb’s bypass, I agreed to fill the prescription as soon as Herb recuperated, knock wood.

When our children heard about my reluctant vow, they said, “Don’t worry, Mom, we’ll help train the dog.”

“Yeah right!” I told myself.

My son David was working in Italy, and my daughter Terri, though living nearby in Commack, was married with two young children and working two jobs.

Well, Herb got stronger — and we got Max, an adorable black standard poodle. Every time Herb petted Max, his mood rose and his blood pressure fell. Herb and I fell in love with him. The children and grandkids did, too, providing maximum petting. But training? Not so much!

We enrolled Max at a puppy play school to learn the basics. We were so proud when Max won musical dogs! The puppies circled to music. When the music stopped, the trainer ordered them to sit. Hate to brag, but Max could sit in two languages, English and Yiddish. (“Zetz!” Herb would shout.) 

Next, Herb paid it forward. He took Max for training as a therapy dog, and we began visiting the Gurwin Jewish Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Commack. Our dog became known as Dr. Max, the mitzvah dog, because of the joy he brought to residents.

But Max didn’t just lift spirits. My grandkids, Kevin and Maddie, began visiting Gurwin with us. Though the kids were only 12 and 8, when people spoke to them, shook Max’s paw, and talked about their own dogs, residents went from serious to smiles.

Max visited hundreds of patients on Long Island and in Florida. 

After four years, Herb and I were on a European cruise when a passenger approached.

“I’m sorry I don’t remember your names,” he said, “but how is Max doing?”

I laughed. “Max? Our black poodle?”

“You brought Max to visit me last year when I had a hip replaced in Florida,” the man said. “I’m doing the other hip this winter. Can Max visit again?”

Reader Carol Cott Gross lives in East Northport.

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