Sunday, May 24, 2009

Safe Harbor Week 2

Our second therapy dog visit to Safe Harbor found Murphy not quite 100%. He and Cody, my yellow Lab, had gone to doggy daycare the previous day. They had lots of play time, got bathed, and had their nails trimmed. Unfortunately, Murphy somehow injured a pad on each of his back feet. This wasn't a terrible injury but it made walking (and getting in the car) uncomfortable for him for a day or two. After much consideration – I tell my students to never take a sick or injured dog on a therapy dog visit – I decided to go ahead an take Murph. Part of my thought process was not wanting to disappoint Carolyn, from week 1, in case she was there.

When we arrived I left Murphy in the car while I went inside and explained to staff what was going on. I wanted them to understand that I could bring my boy in but that if he got uncomfortable, we would have to leave. They were great about it and appreciative that we had made the effort to be there.

Back to the car I went, helped Murphy out and joined three kids whose Moms were in group therapy. Carolyn was there, as well as a nine-year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy. I put Murphy in a down/stay while I explained to them what had happened him. The response was pretty darned amazing. All three kids were sympathetic. They asked lots of questions, asked to see his injured pads, and were happy to simply hang out with him. Carolyn got bored and asked another volunteer to play a game with her in an adjacent room. Every few minutes she interrupted the game to check on Murphy, give him a little pat or a hug, say a few words, and bounce back to her game.

I was impressed with the empathy these children had for my dog. I don't know how much kindness they experience in their lives but they each know how to BE kind.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Safe Harbor

This journey began with an email six months ago. It said, in part, "I would like to expand the kind of therapy dog work we do to include women and children who are victims of domestic violence. If you would consider a therapy dog program at Safe Harbor, please let me know."

There was interest about a therapy dog program from the beginning. But our first serious discussion about a program, I was required (as are all volunteers) to take 30hours of training: Domestic Violence 101. By the end of January my volunteer training was complete.

Next, Murphy, my therapy dog, and I gave a brief presentation to all Safe Harbor staff about the difference dogs can make in people's lives using animal assisted therapy. As always, Murphy demonstrated how it works. A room changes when he walks in. People smile, maybe even laugh. They lean forward, their body language asking "when do I get to pet the big brown dog?"

The presentation went well and the next step was to sit down with the director of client services and come up with a plan. We talked through the possibilities and decided to start with a visit when group counseling for their clients is offered. Since this counseling is for adults only, children who come along usually play in the kids' room, supervised by a volunteer.

We set the date for me and Murphy to start, not knowing if any children would be there that evening.

We arrived at the community offices and were met by a volunteer, a mom and a bouncy 5-year-old. We'll call her Carolyn. Murphy was introduced all around and mom left for counseling. Carolyn and Murphy started getting acquainted. She put her hand on his back, he turned his big Lab head to look at her, and she giggled. She giggled a lot. And she talked to Murphy. For an hour and a half.

I carry a special backpack when I take Murphy to visit folks. It has lots of his favorite toys and games, extra gear, his special water bottle, and of course, treats. Carolyn pulled every single thing out of the pack. She played the muffin pan game with Murphy. She played tug. She groomed him. She played with his tail. She watered him. She gave me doggy cookies. And she walked him. I always have two leashes with me. When Carolyn reached for my leash, I asked her to wait a moment - that I had one just for her. It's a short leash, easily managed by a child. I clipped it to Murphy's collar and off we went, me on one side with the leash attached to his harness, Carolyn on the other side, leading Murphy all around the offices. She showed him every room, every chair, wastebasket, picture. And all the while, my 90-pound chocolate Lab simply wagged and followed along.

One moment in particular was a wow: Carolyn leaned over Murphy, hugged him tight, laid her head on him, and said "I love you, Murphy." AND she let him win at Chutes & Ladders.

This is new territory. We don't know how many ways we can help victims of domestic violence. We know only that we CAN help. We know that dogs have the power to heal, to give comfort, to make giggles happen.

Great job, Murphy!

If anyone out there has a connection with Build a Bear, we need your help. We need a stuffed animal that looks like Murphy - a chocolate Lab (and Dixie the GSD, Nana the Newf, etc.). Why? Because after a vist, we could send a child home with a miniature version of her therapy dog to talk to when the real deal isn't around.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Got a cue?

In positive dog training a cue is a word or a signal to which your dog responds by doing something. Sit is both a cue (word or signal) and a behavior (something your dog does).

Since dogs are masters at reading body language and learning routines, we need to understand that we offer cues (often unintentionally) all the time. What does your dog do when you pick up your car keys? his leash? your running shoes? Does your dog go spastic with that "can I go, please please please can I go?" behavior? Think about it. Fido wasn't born knowing that jingling keys mean car. This is learned behavior through observation.

Why should you care? Because understanding how behaviors happen - both good and bad - can enhance your ability to change or modify those behaviors. Don't know how? Enlist the help of a positive dog trainer.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Meet Billy

Look at this handsome fellow. His name is Billy and not long ago he was homeless. He was filthy dirty with matted hair. His tail is broken and he is blind in one eye, probably from lyme disease (fair warning, folks!). He is a mix breed but he looks mostly like a white and black Newfoundland, one of four Newf colors recognized by the AKC.

The great news? He has been rescued by Newf lovers Paul and Andrea. Billy is now part of a five-Newf household. This sweet 14-month-old (his age is a best-guess) now gets to romp and play on 13 country acres with a river running through the property!

Here are pictures of Billy and his new siblings. Those other three Newfoundland colors are brown (Denali), black (Nana & India), and gray (Argente aka Gina). What gorgeous dogs. And they're all smiling!

The Big Disconnect

There is a disconnect in the dog world. Terry Griffith, my co-host at Bark Radio, put words to it recently. It was the day we visited the spinal cord injury unit of our local veterans' hospital with Murphy, my therapy dog.

Murphy is a 90-pound chocolate Lab. On our visits, when wheelchair-bound patients ask about him, the conversation eventually goes to the difference in therapy dogs and service dogs. Which leads to the question "how can I get a service dog?"

The answer? There are a few organizations to whom a veteran can apply for a service dog. But I am here to tell you, there aren't nearly enough service dogs to go around.

At Bark Radio we try to spread the word to spay and neuter and to adopt dogs from rescue groups and shelters. The problem? Too many dogs, not enough homes. And this is where Terry comes in. "There is a big disconnect between dogs who need homes and people who need service dogs," he said. "How can we connect the two?"

I believe that a process can be developed to identify dogs with potential as working dogs in the general population of rescue dogs. How to accomplish it? I don't know. Will there be a gazillion stumbling blocks? Yes. But will it be worth the effort? Bigger yes.

Action begins with thought. Let's make this happen.