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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Tucker, Certified

Several years ago, my dad fell on the stairs of Temple University Hospital, while carrying a lunch tray of curry back to his office from the cafeteria. Without going into the unhappy details, this incident triggered a series of events that kept him hospitalized for weeks.  My dad has since recovered, and I have safely stowed most of those unhappy memories in the Boy Am I Glad it's Over and I Don't Want to Think About That Again dungeon of my brain.
Except for the dogs.

Dogs As Therapy
During the course of his treatment, my dad was transferred to a hospital that was closer to my parents' house--and that hospital had frequent visits from a group of therapy dogs.

I had heard of dogs visiting nursing homes and children's wards and it always seemed like a good idea to me. Studies abound showing the healing effects of simply petting a pooch.  But I hadn't seem them in action until I wound up spending so much time in hospitals, and later, a rehab center.

Just like Elvis, you could tell when the dogs were in the building. There was a palpable sense of excitement. You'd hear it in the halls: a jingle of a collar, a soft squeal of delight. Nurses would mention it as they came into the room to deliver meds or check an IV. And then two faces would appear in the doorway of the room--one human, one canine--and they'd ask if we wanted a visit.

Of course we did.

And here's where I learned something ever so important. I thought the dogs were therapy for the patients.  Which of course they are.

But they do so much more than that. Doctors and nurses and other hospital staff would stop and pet the pups. I could see the stress of their vitally important jobs melt off of them.

I watched my dad reach out to scratch a furry chin or pat a fuzzy head. Whoever was visiting that day would ask the dog's owner what the pup's name was and we'd guess at the breed. For a moment, the conversation wasn't about blood pressure or medications or physical progress. We all stopped focusing on health and hospitals and how long we'd been there. It was all forgotten in the wag of a tail, the nudge of a snout, the gentle touch of a soft paw.

These therapy dogs helped everybody. Every body.

Paying it Forward: We Could Do This Too
Since then, I've heard of therapy dogs offering comfort in other stressful situations. The Red Cross welcomed therapy dogs to support people displaced by natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy. Colleges and universities bring in puppies for students to chill with during finals. And some of the children of Newtown were visited by therapy dogs with warm hearts and cold noses as just one of the ways to begin to cope with the horrific events at their school.

So I decided that one day, I would volunteer with my dogs. I wasn't sure when, due to the constraints of being a full-time mom with a full-time career. But I could take steps toward that goal, so that when the time came, I--and my dogs--would be ready.

For many years, I've worked with a fantastic trainer named Anne Macaulay of On Good Behavior. I've attended many of her classes for years, from basic obedience when my dogs were round-bellied puppies, to the agility classes that gave my Rosie an outlet for her exuberance, and my Lilah the bravery she didn't know she had. 

In September, Anne was going to hold a class to train dogs for the AKC Canine Good Citizen test. Owners wishing to have their dogs take the test sign a document promising to be responsible pet owners. Dogs who pass the test have shown that they behave well in social situations, such as meeting strangers and other dogs, and are able to stay focused and calm in the face of distractions. These dogs sit quietly and allow strangers to pet them and handle them, and are confident enough with themselves to be away from their owners without freaking out. 

In order to become a therapy dog, and work with some of the therapy dog organizations--and thus being allowed on site for many of the hospitals and other locations--the dog and owner usually need to pass some kind of training or test. For some, getting the AKC CGC designation is either a good start, or all that is needed to be qualified.

Thus my decision to help my dogs become official Canine Good Citizens. Anne knew all three of my current dogs, and we had a few discussions on who to start with, since I could only train one dog at a time.

Who amongst these noble canines would be the best to start with?

Who Will Be the First in the Family to Become a Canine Good Citizen?
Jasper is probably the friendliest of the bunch. But he's 67 pounds of bouncy You're My Best Friend Though I Just Met You happiness.

Jasper is so very friendly, but perhaps a bit too enthusiastic.

Lilah is the calm one, the most sensitive, and the sweetest thing on four paws, but also the most skittish and perhaps too easily startled.

Sweet Lilah might be a little overwhelmed and nervous.

And Tucker, the baby of the family, is pure terrier: an ever-energetic ball of distractable scruffiness.

Tucker may have tons of energy, but he's also a very caring and warm pup.  When he stops running. Or chasing Balls.

After much pondering, I decided to train Tucker. I thought Jasper could use an extra year of calming, and Lilah could use some more confidence building. And the Tuckster--who could fool you into thinking that he's all about The Chase and The Ball--is also the first one to sense when something isn't right, and has a special warmth characterized by the gentle hugs he gives when he feels they're needed.

The soft side of Tucker.

There's a silly side, too. And a sleepy side.

Practice, Practice, Practice
We began classes in September. Tucker and I practiced walking together, with No Pulling. He had to perfect the concept of paying attention to me, stopping when I stop, turning left or right as I did, matching his pace to mine. He was quite good already with his Sit, Stay and Come. And he had no problem with folks petting him or looking at his paws. What we had to work on most was meeting and greeting, and the most difficult for Tucker, Reacting Appropriately to Distractions.  

For six weeks, Tucker and I and the rest of our classmates practiced being Good Citizens. This meant that Tucker had to learn to sit quietly next to me as someone With Another Dog(!) came up to me, greeted me, shook my hand and asked if she could pet my dog. No jumping. No leaping. Just waiting quietly and allowing the Someone to pet him. And, by the way, ignore the Other Dog.

This was Very Hard for Tucker.

The other challenge for Tucker was keeping his brain inside his head and his mind focused on me. There were so many Distractions. Other dogs. Other people. As part of the training, Anne set up all kinds of distractions we had to walk by. Traffic cones.  Dog toys. Treat bags. Not to mention the fact that the training took place outside in a parking lot of a vet after business hours--which meant that there were other dog Smells everywhere, and people sounds and cars going by on the street.

We practiced at home as best we could. Tucker could do everything quite well--but he was consistently inconsistent. During any one class he might do everything perfect and then a Sniff would distract him and he'd instantly lose focus.

This is what a Focused Tucker looks like. Eyes on me.

Testing 1, 2, 3
The test was held in the parking lot of another vet, on a Sunday afternoon. We drew numbers to see who would go first, and we wound up last to be tested. That meant by the time we were up, Tucker was bored out of his mind, having walked around the grass a zillion times while we waited for our turn.

I tried not to be nervous, since I knew Tucker would read my emotions.

There are 10 parts to the test, including:
  • Accepting a friendly stranger.
  • Sitting politely for petting.
  • Allowing basic grooming procedures.
  • Walking on a loose lead.
  • Walking through a crowd.
  • Sitting and lying down on command and staying in place.
  • Coming when called.
  • Reacting appropriately to another dog.
  • Reacting appropriately to distractions.
  • Calmly enduring supervised separation from the owner.
Each one of those parts had specific requirements. For example, there needed to be at least three people to make up the "crowd" we walked through. (More information on the exact specifications can be found on the AKC Canine Good Citizen web site.)

And the entire test had to be done with No Treats. I couldn't hold them. I couldn't pretend to hold them. I couldn't even mention them. Mr. Tucker had to behave like a gentleman--not because of the promise of an instant reward. He had to behave...Just Because.

Tucker Takes His Turn
Finally, we were up. We went through our paces. Tucker walked great on the leash, but I could tell he was distracted. I talked to him the entire time, telling him he was a great doggy, and that he should focus. Which he did. Mostly. Sometimes I was afraid his brain had left the building, but he somehow managed to find it again, and listen to me. As for me, I was so focused on Tucker that I was barely aware of anything else, except Anne's instructions to me.

The last part of the test is the supervised separation. One of the volunteers took Tucker on his leash, handed me a timer, and I walked out of sight to spend an incredibly long three minutes away from my dog.

When the timer beeped, I hustled myself back around the corner to be greeted by a huge canine smile gracing my favorite scruffy face. I gave my buddy lots of love, and was rewarded with big wags and a Tucker-style hug.

And the news that he had passed.

Yay Tucker!

It was a great experience, and I've continued practicing with Tucker--and with my other dogs. I think Lilah will get the training next. Jasper, Mr. Exuberance himself, will be trained after Lilah.

I've started investigating therapy organizations, so I can continue training, and eventually will start volunteering. One of the workers at our vet is connected with a therapy organization, and I found out in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy that one of my neighbors volunteers with her dogs.

One step, one paw at a time. I'm looking forward to sharing floppy ears and waggy tails with lots of folks who could use a dose of canine therapy.

Tucker posing with his Canine Good Citizen certificate.

The true Tucker: Certificates are BORING!

Tucker looking ahead to a future as a therapy dog.

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