My Moment with Baxter

Posted by Pia
Baxter with his human, Melissa Joseph, earlier this month.

Baxter with his human, Melissa Joseph, earlier this month.

Even though this post is a tribute to a very special therapy dog who has just passed on, I can say with utmost certainty that he remains very much alive in spirit, and still hard at work healing hearts!

Rescued mutt Baxter went from a life in which no one loved him to one in which he loved everyone. He became a therapy dog who specialized in giving comfort to patients in their final days at the San Diego Hospice and The Institute for Palliative Medicine. And having learned from the best, Baxter's human mom, Melissa Joseph, shared his mission, and intends to continue his legacy in everything she does. "I never really got how I could impact the world until I got Baxter," Melissa says.

Melissa chronicled Baxter's heartwarming encounters in her book, Moments with Baxter. I had the pleasure of speaking with her today, and she told me, "I don't feel like he was mine alone. I feel like I got to be part of a remarkable phenomenon." Baxter passed away at the age of 19 on October 16.

My "moment with Melissa" was in many ways also a "moment with Baxter:" Together, they were a six-legged team working as one. Melissa shared a recent event that revealed not only the positive impact Baxter had on his hospice friends but also Melissa's keen sense of the best way to connect with people in times of need.

Baxter was visiting the hospice on the day that a 36-year old woman who had battled breast cancer was to be transported home to die with family. The woman had come to love Baxter and had shared with staff that his visits literally removed her pain: Pain that she consistently rated at 8 out of 10 in intensity before his visits and at 0 following them. As the gurney was wheeled towards this woman's room, Melissa asked if she could place Baxter on it. This was against the rules, the attendant told her, but Melissa continued to lift Baxter, respectfully assuring the attendant that this would be an important "moment with Baxter." When Baxter arrived in the room on the gurney, the patient laughed and cried at once. She removed her oxygen mask and barked, "Move over, Baxter!" The newly enlightened attendant wheeled them around the hospital grounds for a playful final ride together. Everyone present was grateful for taking part and reminded of the importance of such moments.

Baxter with Davide, a young friend at the hospice.

Baxter with Davide, a young friend at the hospice.

Melissa adopted Baxter when he was about two years old. His fearful behavior at the time led her to believe that "something terrible must have happened to him," she recalls. He had been rescued from a life of neglect in which he was left tied up and fed only intermittently. Melissa nursed him through heartworm and mange and restored his frail, malnourished body to health. And then the love that healed him fostered a larger-than-life love that has healed countless others.

According to Kim Heinrich, Director of the hospice's volunteer resources program, which secures Pawsitive Pals Pet Therapy teams for patients, "Some of our best therapy dogs are rescues. There is no breed that is better than another. It is about a quality in a dog, and they can all be trained from there." When asked what Kim will miss most about Baxter, she said, "Baxter's eyes stand out in my mind -- his deep, dark caring eyes. They had a story all their own.

"Baxter thrived in this work all the way to the end," she added.

According to the observations of both Kim and Melissa, Baxter's own failing health seemed to allow his hospice friends to come to terms with their own mortality. "Their focus on alleviating his pain seemed empowering and took them away from their own pain in many ways," Melissa explained.

In the final months of Baxter's life, it was Melissa's turn to offer hospice. She described how he loved when she'd look into his eyes and talk to him. As any good mom would do, she stayed by his side, stroking his head, and assuring him of her love to the very end.

Baxter with Mo, another hospice friend.

Baxter with Mo, another hospice friend.

As Melissa talked about the many things she learned from Baxter, she remarked on how the love of a companion animal stands apart from other kinds of love: "Life is complicated. A relationship with a dog is not," she told me. "A dog is not going to disappoint or abandon you. With humans, love always changes. With Baxter, it never changed, and there was always plenty more of it."

When I asked her what Baxter would tell her now to get her though her own grief, Melissa got choked up and shared, "Press on. Pay it forward. Pay his love forward. Baxter is still providing for me, even now."

I encourage everyone to get a copy of this heartwarming book. Grab a box of tissues and have your own "Moment with Baxter!" There is even a plush toy of Baxter available, complete with his own therapy dog vest! Melissa has kindly pledged the proceeds of these sales to animal and hospice charities. I for one intend to give the book and stuffed toy to all of my animal-loving friends this holiday season.

Sadly, like Melissa, many of my close friends have had furry friends pass away recently. As I pay them my respects, I imagine them all frolicking together with Baxter, free of the ailments that a physical body imposes. I send their human survivors my love. May these remarkable creatures rest in peace: Gibson, Socrates and Plato, Pants, Teddy, Fannie, Vela, Edgar, Elvis, Annabelle, Pancakes and of course, Baxter.

To the animals who have passed on, I offer heartfelt thanks. It is the healing that all of you amazing creatures so freely offered, that we are most in need of now.

You will be missed.

In Kinship,
Dr. Pia Salk

PS: Please have a look at this wonderful video tribute to Baxter and his work.

Comments (11)

  • Dear Dr. Pia,

    Thank you for bringing the story of Baxter to The Daily Wag. I have watched his video tribute and have ordered the book, the doggie stuffed animal toy of Baxter is so tempting I will most likely order that for me as well. What a precious life and story of Baxter and all the human souls he touched with his doggie heart. I cried through his entire video as well as reading this post . Baxter looks to be half Chow Chow his large paws and Chow facial markings appear much like a Chow was some of his DNA.

    This is a lovely story and how remarkable that he lived to be 19 1/2 years old shows you his love for others kept him going even when he was in pain and slowing down. I was happy and sad reading about him here

    My Chow Chow is almost 14 and she has slowed down a lot the past few months, I watch her closely to try and make her life easier with her Arthritis and pain in her hind legs and back. She carries on and still enjoys her days and sometimes I see the puppy spunk in her when she is feeling good and having a good day.

    Baxter touched so many lives what a wonderful life he had for 17 plus years after the few few years of a sad life.

    Thank you for sharing the beautiful story of his life with us.

    R.I.P Baxter - He is waiting now on the other side of The Rainbow Bridge.

    Pam from California & Mrs. Bosley Chow Chow

  • Dr. Pia
    What a precious story, Baxter was a wonderful dog. It's amazing how animals can bring such joy into our lives and they give unconditional love. What I find interesting is that they seem to know when someone is not feeling well. They'll look at you with their big eyes and give you a big old kiss on the face.

    I have 4 dogs, 3 Labs and a Frenchie. After a bad day at work when I come home and they are all barking and going crazy just because they are excited to see me I tend to forget the entire day and just focus on how happy they are that I'm home, it's a wonderful feeling.

    Thank you for sharing this story.

    Ann and Zoe

  • This story brought tears to my eyes. I know there's a special place in heaven for Baxter, bless his heart. Please, let's work together to prevent animal abuse and rescue those in dire circumstances.

  • Dr. Pia,
    Thank you for bringing the story of Baxter to us. Mom and I cried through his video. What a great guy to have touched so many lives. We are ordering his book and getting some for gifts. Mom was in the hospital before Christmas last year, and said the best part was when the therapy animals visited her. Thanks again Dr. Pia for sharing.
    Love & licks,
    P.S. We got 18 inches of snow right here in town yesterday. A cozy fire, here I come.

  • My Heart aches for the loss of Baxter, but fills with Joy knowing he brought so much Peace, Happiness and Fulfillment to others...his videos are my favorites...I might have shared one YouTube link here before, I can't remember, so I'm glad you posted the link for everyone to share this great story about Baxter and Melissa Joseph.

  • Well, like many I'm sure, I don't have dry eyes as I read and write today. (And) Dr Pia, if your ending tribute was meant for MY little Edgar in mentioning his name, thank you from my heart for remembering him. Everyone here at TDWag knows how precious a boy he was to me and his daddy.

    Baxter's 19 years of living are remarkable, and what a blessing that his little life was that long - a blessing in manymany ways! Being a woman of faith, I unquestioningly believe that God can use US, as instruments in others' lives, but can He utilize an animal for good?! The answer is positively 'yes' and very evident in Baxter's story. Aw. God bless little Baxter - for all the good that he innocently accomplished, by simply being a warm, loving, grateful and sensing creature that he was.

    May God bless Melissa Joseph, too! This is a veryvery difficult time for her, I know. My heart is deeplydeeply saddened today to learn of Baxter's passing. My prayer for her is that she'll experience the Lord's peace in her heart, and inner warmth and comfort in keeping Baxter alive in her precious memories.

    Grace and peace,


  • Dear Dr. Pia: My name is Nina and I'm Gracyn's mom. I am very sorry to hear of Baxter's passing and the video of him at the hospice brought tears to my eyes. It is my intention to order the book and get the stuffed toy. Nineteen years is a very long time for a furbaby to live; however, it's never long enough. He helped so many people at the hospice. Baxter had such a smile on his face when placed in the bed with Davide and it looks as if he brought happiness to Mo too. Whoops! Gracyn has something to say.

    Hi Dr. Pia. Like my momma, I was sorry to hear that such a great pup passed away but I know that he is now young again and that awful Arthur Itis no longer bothers him. I feel kind of sad today. I think I'll go have a nap now. See ya later. Love, Gracyn

  • First, I want to thank Pia for the lovely article she composed about the magical

    With respect to the comments....Oh my god, they are heart-felt and beautiful.
    I so appreciate your responses and I assure you that when you receive the book,
    if you are one of the ones, I feel confident that you will fall madly in love with

    He brought bliss to my life moment by moment and inspired me to share him
    with the world. It was indeed his magical aura, his love, his soulful eyes, and
    sensitive heart that served as the impetus to write this book.

    Thank you, thank you so very much.


    Melissa Joseph, Baxter's mom

  • Dear Dr. Pia,

    I'm very glad that you shared this story. I had "happy tears" most of the time while reading this post.
    Thank you!

  • Hi Dr. Pia, What a beautiful blog about an absolutely wonderful dog named Baxter and his fabulous rescue human, Melissa. It's hard to tell who was the luckiest: Baxter, Melissa or all of the others that Baxter helped and loved so very much. I wish more humans were like Melissa, Martha, you and all of us who have rescued animals that turned out to be special little creatures simply because we provided them with the love they needed. How easy is that?! Well, I continue to hope that more people will care for all animals so we can live in a loving, caring society. Thanks so much for sharing this extremely emotional blog. Jan (Dudley Do Right's Mom)

  • I want to see a picture of Baxter as a puppy

Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear on this weblog until the author has approved them.