The extraordinary world of Denver psychotherapist and coach Thomas Ramey Watson and his therapy dogs
By Geoff Ward
Tom got a message to say the Afghan pup he was waiting for had been born, and that it was an unusual color. But it wasn’t the breeder who told him. It was Hattie, Tom’s Afghan who had died the previous year. Out walking, Tom heard Hattie’s “voice” distinctly. “I’m born,” she said.
And so it was – into the world came Melchior, the third incarnation, Tom is convinced, of his beloved Afghan Baltho, his first “therapy dog”. Hattie said the pup must be called Melchior after another of the Biblical Three Wise Men – Baltho was short for the Arabian Balthazar. These dogs certainly came bearing special gifts for Tom and others who came into contact with them.
The story begins in the 1990s, as recounted in Tom’s new fictionalized memoir, Baltho: The Dog Who Owned a Man, and will continue in two more books about the remarkable dogs, and at least one cat, that have helped Tom with his counseling and his life. Before the trilogy continues, however, comes a novel from Tom, Reading the Signs, a “paranormal love story,” due out in the fall, plus a couple of books of poetry to be published in the interim.
Tom, who lives in northwest Denver, said: “With Melchior, born last November, I’m now on my third incarnation of Baltho. Melchior is taking up Baltho’s psychological co-therapist role already. I figured that was the plan when Baltho’s subsequent incarnation, Hattie, told me where and when to find Melchior and that he wanted to be named for another of the Three Wise Men, this one from Persia.”
No stranger to paranormal experiences, Tom, born and raised in Sterling CO, says he has had more of them since childhood than he can remember, never questioning their validity because they were so much part of his life. In 1992, he was planning to adopt a labrador or golden retriever, but “an Afghan was telepathically calling me, begging me, to locate and rescue him”. Thus Tom arrived at the Denver Afghan Rescue where, at the gate, he had a premonition of a red brindle Afghan jumping up and hugging him.
Once inside, this was exactly what happened when a dog the rescue facility had named Mystery bounded out. Tom knew immediately it was the one who’d been calling him. Driving back, Tom heard Mystery thinking “going home, going home.” Tom said: “I’d met the dog who would adopt me.”
As Afghans originated in the Middle East – they are among the most ancient of dogs, being referred to in Egyptian papyruses and depicted in cave art in Afghanistan dating back 4,000 years – Tom thought his new companion needed a more appropriate name. So he chose Balthazar, the Arabian scholar, “wise man”, or king – most apt for an Afghan, often described as the “king of dogs.”
Baltho was a show-off from the start, loving to strike a pose and be the centre of attention. He would sit in on Tom’s counseling sessions, positioning himself between Tom and the client so they couldn’t ignore him. Baltho made clients feel at ease and “tuned in” to them, said Tom. He was taken aback by an “intuitive connection” with the dog which often showed him important truths or insights to do with clients that he might otherwise have missed. “Together, we made a formidable team,” he said.
On one occasion, while acting like a puppy, Baltho helped a woman “comfort her inner child” and overcome her anxiety, and on another, through his exuberance, helped a man counter his fears of intimacy.
However, as soon as Tom had got Baltho home from the rescue facility, he was struck by a strong feeling of foreboding, of anguish, which returned whenever he wrestled playfully with his pet. The sensation was so powerful that, after a while, Tom stopped playing with Baltho in this way. Four years later, Baltho developed a tumor and, despite an operation and Tom’s hopes for a miracle, died, at about the age of eleven.
Yet for ten nights after that, said Tom, Baltho’s spirit returned to visit him: “I was wakened by what felt like Baltho jumping on the bed. I opened my eyes. I saw Baltho’s ethereal presence on the bed beside me. He lay down, as he’d done in the old days, putting his head on my heart. I wasn’t hallucinating. I was wide awake by then.” And Baltho was not alone – he always brought friends, spirits of other dogs that had died, with him.
“Baltho turned my house into a home, gave me a reason to live, to press forward, no matter what,” said Tom. “We faced together the trials that were hurled our way.” One day, Baltho was attacked by a Rottweiler in the street, but fought back and beat off his foe. From this, Tom took a lesson for life: “Baltho taught me to put on bravery like armor and take up my sword against the forces of darkness, no matter how terrified I felt. I was brought up to try to accept everything and move on, to go round things, or not pay too much attention, not to fight back. But when evil confronts you, you’ve got to confront it.”
“Baltho showed me how to take a stronger stand with people,” Tom said, “how to stand my ground. With me, so much has been about being strong, and not letting controlling personalities have their way. If you’re not used to doing this, you can feel guilty. I often think to myself ‘be like Baltho’.” Tom believes this is an important lesson for many: “It’s important that I then offer support in finding a true sense of self and making responsible choices, regardless of pressure to conform to others’ expectations. We do this by passing the tests that life throws in our way.”
When a pet passes it makes a deep impact on the owner’s life, and recognizing that the animal can come back is important, Tom says. “Baltho battled illness and affirmed life, brought joy and truth to the kids in the neighborhood and healing to my clients. I don’t grieve him because I know his spirit lives on. The physical form changes but the essence of the dog is still there. I have him back for the third time now, in Melchior. I believe we were together in other lives, and I think our strong connection means we will stay together. We have a terrifically strong psychic bond. Who knows the techniques we might employ in our therapeutic work together.”
When he felt the same energy tugging at him as it had done with Baltho, Tom adopted Hattie from a breeder who rescued her from people who’d bought and returned her in 2002. Hattie, two years old and similar to Baltho in looks and personality, was a showdog but her owners had seriously ill-treated her. Tom had her for nearly nine years before cancer took its toll, despite surgery. “I knew she was the same dog,” he said. “My heart was really warmed when she came to me. It felt like new life, new energy, breathing into me, breathing into my heart.
“After she died, Hattie started communicating telepathically with me. I heard her voice clearly, saying she was still discarnate between lives. She was planning to come back right away that fall, but didn’t return until last fall (2012). After this, I heard from the breeder that her bitch would give birth about the middle of November. On Sunday, November 11, I was out walking, in a meditative mood, when I heard Hattie say to me ‘I’m born.’ She told me the name she wanted to be called this time, Melchior, and that she, or rather he, would be an unexpected color. I called the breeder and she said the pups had been born the day before.”
Hattie also told Tom she was looking forward to being with his cat Figaro, or Figgy, again. “‘Figgy?’ I asked. ‘He died some years ago.’ ‘Noir is Figgy,’ she said. I’d rescued Noir from my cat-hoarder sister the year before. Figgy had come from her collection as well, but two decades prior.”
Melchior, as predicted, was not a color the breeder had been expecting. He was a faded red domino, while his siblings were black and silver. His mother is of the same lineage as Hattie. “Already, I can see the therapy dog manifesting in him because he’s got wisdom beyond his age,” said Tom. “Like Baltho, he wants to pose and be the centre of attention. I think he’s going to be that special therapy dog.”
Many might think it strange that paranormal experience and an academic career should go together. Tom’s Ph.D. is in English (literature and writing), having taught the subject at the University of Colorado at Denver and elsewhere, and he is the author of many scholarly works, including an acclaimed book on the poet John Milton. But he said: “The paranormal is part of my life. I have never been able to separate my scholarly work from my creative work. I have always wanted to work on both. It is fairly unusual, I suppose, because you have to switch gears when you’re moving from one to the other.”
Tom started counseling as a professor when students came to him with their troubles, and pursued it seriously when appointed an Episcopal lay chaplain for the Auraria campus, Denver, in the early 1980s. He completed a two-year program in marriage and family therapy, as well as a number of ministry courses, and he has written numerous articles about counseling and coaching.
One of Tom’s forebears on his mother’s side was the Quebec-born explorer and fur trapper Jacques LaRamee (1784-1821) who was well-known for his uniquely positive attitude toward Native Americans, commemorated by a number of place names in the upper Rocky Mountains West – Laramie, Wyoming, being the best known. In his own way, Tom is an explorer, too, believing that journeying to various realms of the mind, the soul and the physical world is key to enjoying the good life. Insights gleaned from “becoming aware of the intersecting planes of existence” can be used by all of us for fuller and more deeply lived lives, he says, and his writings and work all follow this direction, continuing LaRamee’s embrace of minorities of every sort – Hispanics, American Indians, African Americans.
“What I keep being taught in this life is that we shouldn’t stick to hard and fast formulas about anything,” he says. As he writes in Baltho: “I have to trust the mystery that knits my life together.”
* Dr Thomas Ramey Watson is an affiliate faculty member of Regis University’s College of Professional Studies in Denver, Colorado. He has done postdoctoral work at Cambridge University, and was named a Research Fellow at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University. See his website at www.thomasrameywatson.com – Baltho: The Dog Who Owned a Man is published by Barn Swallow Media, $14.99 paperback, $9.99 Kindle.