Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Does Your Dog Have What It Takes To Be A Therapy Dog?

Being a therapy dog is not in the cards for my current crew. Don't get me wrong - they are all very friendly, social and obedience trained. But that isn't quite all it takes.

Shawnee - German Shepherd Dog
Shawnee was feral (no human contact) as a puppy. She has come a very long way and today people don't believe me when I describe how fearful she once was. Occasional skittishness will always be in her nature. If something unsettles her, she needs to tell me by barking about it - loudly. Um, that's not very therapeutic.

Dixie - German Shepherd Dog Mix
Dixie is the schmooziest, most charming, dainty little shep mix. She will approach anyone with the "Aren't I the cutest thing you ever saw and please pet me" look. Until she decides she has had enough of a good thing. Then she will cop an attitude: "Leave me alone. I'm tired." OK, moving along...

Sydney - Mostly Australian Cattle Dog
Greets one and all with her engaging full body wag of utter joy. But look up "stubborn" in the dictionary and you will find a picture of Sydney. She feels the need to emphasize her bullheadedness by dropping to the floor and rolling belly up. Try moving 50 pounds of dead weight. Could I maneuver her around a nursing home if she suddenly got it into her mind not to cooperate? Really, it would not be pretty.

Prior to this group of dogs I had two therapy dogs simultaneously. Bandit, an Australian Shepherd mix I had taken in as a stray and Elliot, a Doberman Pinscher who came to live with me when his caretaker passed away. These dogs could always put a smile on sad and lonely faces.

Elliot and I would visit the local nursing home every other week on my Thursday lunch hour. (Bandit did her stint on alternate weeks.) Elliot adored one nursing home resident in particular. She was confined to a wheelchair, which brought her right at Elliot's height. Elliot knew to line himself up right next to her wheelchair for a full back massage. It wasn't beneath him to seek her out for one more little massage before going back home.

One day two women entered pushing a wheelchair. The elderly man in the wheelchair sat rigid and motionless, staring straight ahead with unseeing eyes. Elliot, spotting an opportunity for a massage (or maybe not) positioned himself parallel to the wheelchair and stood perfectly still, eyes focused in the same direction as that gentleman's. Within seconds, a shaky, unsteady hand rose from the wheelchair, hovered precariously in mid-air, veered to the right and wobbled down awkwardly, coming to rest on its intended target - the top of Elliot's head. With human hand on canine head, man and dog remained motionless. Elliot knew this was more important than a massage. I glanced at the two women, the wife and daughter, tears streaming down their faces. "My father had a stroke. This is the first time he has acknowledged anything going on around him or made any kind of movement on his own. Thank you." WOW! The power of animals!

For more information about therapy dogs:
Therapy Dogs International

(In March 2001, Elliot succumbed to Dilated Cardiomyopathy, a fatal heart condition common in Doberman Pinschers.)

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