Faithful companion. Man’s best friend.
Or BFF – best furry friend, as Bob Tomsky refers to his 6-year-old husky, Anok (like a knock at the door).
“Huskies are a huge commitment. They need a good amount of training and activity to keep them happy – and a good amount of food,” said Tomsky. “I knew what I was getting into. It’s me and Anok. We’re a team.”
Little did Tomsky know, it would be a literal knock on the door that would inspire them to become another sort of team.
“Bobski,” as he’s known to many, spent 25-plus years with ski patrol and has been a ski instructor for more than 20 years. He loves the snow, being outdoors and interacting with people.
“Instructor, teacher, educator – you get to make connections with people,” said Tomsky. “Anok’s the same way – he’s happiest around people, being out and about. His eyes often draw people in.”
A different kind of medicine
It was late summer 2017 when Tomsky found himself at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center due to an infection.
“I was in bed for three days it was so bad,” said Tomsky. “That’s a long time in a twin bed for a 6’4” person. I was not a happy camper, and I didn’t want to be there. I was in pain and worried about the future if the infection didn’t respond to the antibiotics.”
Then Tomsky heard a knock.
“Would you like a visit from Heeling Friends?”
Tomsky said yes, and almost immediately, his outlook started to shift as Patrick and his dog, Harper, walked into the room.
“Harper will never know what she did for me during those 20 minutes,” said Tomsky. “It’s like I was covered in mud and it all got rinsed off. I don’t know who loved the visit more, me or Harper.”
Tomsky received another visit from Heeling Friends during his inpatient stay.
“Those visits made a significant difference in my attitude,” he said. “As an animal lover, being able to pet and hug those dogs made a world of difference.”
Following discharge from the hospital, Tomsky said Anok was a big part of his recovery. Their daily walks were an aspect of Tomsky’s therapy and gave Anok a chance to exert his energy.
“He can read me – dogs have that sense about them,” he said. “Anok can sense when I’m feeling down about something. He’ll come over and look at me and talk to me. Sometimes all it takes is petting him and knowing he’s at my side to turn my outlook around.”
As Tomsky’s recovered and grew stronger, he reached out to Heeling Friends to see how he and Anok could become a team.
“That same day, I opened up the newspaper and sure enough, there was an advertisement for the group,” Tomsky said. “It was meant to be.”
“Heeling Friends has been working with patients at YVMC for twenty years,” said Lynette Weaver, co-director of the volunteer group. “Bob and Anok have a special relationship and a deep trust between them. There is a lot of eye contact from Anok to Bob, looking for guidance and approval.”
Over a series of months, Tomsky and Anok completed the required trainings and test environments, including Anok being around wheelchairs, hospital equipment, temptations and new smells. Trainers watch for how well the animal responds to the handler and vice versa.
“There were things we both learned from the training,” said Tomsky. “I’m an extension of him. Anok picks up on body language. He reads how you are and can tell if you want a lot or a little affection, or none at all.”
“As with most huskies, Anok is a talker, offering a soft howl to show his feelings,” said Weaver. “I was not prepared for the broad acceptance and enthusiasm from those we visited during mentoring sessions. People are drawn to him.”
Once they passed training, Bob and Anok received their coveted purple shirt and purple leash.
“It’s amazing how the dogs know that when their human gets those two items out, it’s time to ‘work,’” said Weaver.
And “work” they will. Tomsky and Anok can be found visiting patients and staff at YVMC almost weekly, bringing Tomsky’s initial interaction with Heeling Friends full circle.