Erick Bengel: Everyday People: Finding health -- and joy -- through time with dogs

Aug. 22—When Pam Holen was in her 50s and still living in Alaska, she developed rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder that damages joints, bones, tissue, even eyes and organs.

Holen's specialist told her she'd likely be in a wheelchair in her 60s. "And that made me mad," she recalled.

Holen sought a form of exercise that would keep her condition from worsening.

At a state fair, she watched two older ladies running their puffy miniature poodles through an agility event, a course where dogs leap over obstacles, weave around poles, climb A-frames and perform other feats of speed and grace. "And I went, 'I can do that,'" she said.

Holen went on to train border collies.

Now in her 70s, the Astoria resident has competed in almost every sport — including agility, flyball, sheepherding and scent work — that border collies excel in. Some of her dogs earned top scores in Alaska, she said.

Everything involved in owning dogs, from multiple daily walks to throwing a ball, served as physical therapy. "You don't permit yourself to give up to the pain in your body," she said.

Her rheumatoid arthritis went into remission.

In Alaska, Holen ran medical offices, worked as a paralegal and served as a volunteer coordinator with the court-appointed special advocacy program in Wasilla. After she retired, she ran a bed-and-breakfast.

A master gardener, Holen founded the Flavel House Garden Society, which since last year has worked to restore gardens at the Victorian-era property on Exchange Street. The project could use more volunteers and gardeners, as well as donations, she said.

Holen and her husband, Jim, moved to Astoria about 13 years ago when their son Chis and his wife, Jennifer, were raising a new baby while running two restaurants.

Friday is National Dog Day. In years past, Holen spent it promoting the Pet Partners program, which certifies dogs and their handlers for animal-based therapy.

Before the coronavirus pandemic led to her early retirement, Maisie, the last of Holen's five border collies, visited patients at Columbia Memorial Hospital and Providence Seaside Hospital. At Columbia Memorial's cancer center, Maisie spent time with people undergoing chemotherapy. At times, children of parents who had just died sat on the floor and held Maisie until the moment of overwhelming grief passed, Holen recalled.

At Clatsop Community College, Maisie hung out with students stressed and exhausted from exams. For a few years, children read to Maisie at the Astoria Library's "Read to a Therapy Dog."

"A really intelligent dog with a good disposition — they can be your partners," Holen said. "You really bond with them. And my dogs have gotten me through a lot in the past."

Over the course of their marriage, she and Jim have also owned a collie, a Boston terrier, a cocker spaniel and a couple of basset hounds. A miniature Australian shepherd named Persei keeps Maisie company these days.

Holen's first dog disappeared during the 1964 Alaska earthquake.

She remembers her family evacuating their house in Anchorage. Tanana, their smooth-coat collie mix, went with them. "And we just never found her ... Hopefully somebody else found her and took care of her," she said.

Holen said her first border collie, Sophie, saved Jim and their son Davin from a grizzly bear that charged at them during a camping trip. The dog stepped between guys and grizzly and told off the beast, she said.

Later, when Holen was on a ski trail, Sophie suddenly knocked her down. At the bottom of the rise ahead was a moose and her calf, Holen recalled. Had Sophie not intervened, she is certain the cow would have trampled her.

She has heard people ask dismissively, "What's the purpose of a dog?"

"You listen to that B.S., and you think about the dogs that work with the police, and the military, and the (airports), and the dogs that save the lives of children who wander off, and the elderly who wander off, or people who get caught in the snow in an avalanche ... " Holen said. "I mean, they are amazing. Dogs are amazing."