life with dogs
Dog's Life: Travel
Travel: Dog Friendly Bozeman, Montana.
Bozeman, MT is the place for the serious outdoorsperson. The town proper is rumored to have over 67 miles of trails and 42 dog bag stations in its parks. The pride of Bozeman’s canine community is a 37-acre off leash dog area at Snowfill Recreation Area. If that weren’t enough, ground was recently broken at Gallatin Regional Park for a new 13-acre dog park with amenities like ponds, diving docks, a dog sports area. The OLA advocacy group, Run Dog Run, is also responsible for developing a series of smaller dog parks throughout the whole area. Gotta hand it to them, they know how to get the job done. Bozeman is also a gateway to every day-trip imaginable with majestic mountains, rivers and lakes in the neighborhood. Much of the world-class trout fishing and clear waterways benefit from Montana’s egalitarian stream access laws, allowing for full public use. Canoeing, kayaking, white water rafting—for water-loving dogs, big sky country is paradise. All that outdoor activity tends to work up a thirst, so a number of breweries (Montana Ale Works, Bozeman Brewing Co.) help satisfy the town’s favorite indoor sport— drinkin’. Most either welcome dogs or hold special pupfriendly promotions. Montanans like their food fresh and wild, so look for some jerky treats made with local game, it will help fuel you and your pup on your adventures. Plus Bozeman is home to West Paw Design, maker of eco-friendly dog beds and toys, and one of the greenest companies anywhere. The new West Paw Dog Park recently opened to the public (WPD helped secure the space and funded improvements) with the support of Run Dog Run. For an insider’s viewpoint on Bozeman’s dog-friendly attitude—go online for tips from the canine-loving staff at West Paw Design: thebark.com/bozeman
News: Karen B. London
Included as cherished family members
It’s been a long time since the majority of people with dogs considered them property, but the inclusion of them in the celebrations and events of life associated with family continues to grow. Birthday parties and gifts for dogs have become increasingly common in recent years, and the number of dogs included in family photos or in signatures on greeting cards is bigger than ever. It’s really old news to say that many people consider dogs to be family members, but interesting studies of the ways in which that’s true continue to be published.
Earlier this year, a study called Companion Animals in Obituaries: An Exploratory Study was published in the journal Anthrozoös. The study illuminated the importance of companion animals, including dogs, based on the frequency and manner in which they were mentioned in obituaries.
Authors of the above study read nearly 12,000 obituaries in their local papers for three months, recording how often companion animals were mentioned and also how often donations to animal-related charities were requested in lieu of flowers. The newspapers studied were the Washington Post in Washington, D.C., the Richmond Times Dispatch in Richmond, Virginia and the TagesAnzeiger in Zurich, Switzerland.
They found that 148 obituaries mentioned a pet survivor (over 70 percent of them dogs!), and 130 requested that donations go to an animal-related charity. Many of the pets were described as faithful, loving or loyal, a lot were mentioned by name, and it was often written that they missed the deceased. Sometimes even the pets who predeceased the person were mentioned as in, “Wayne was an avid fisherman and enjoyed time with his beloved dogs, the late Bubba and Boomer, as well as Bear.”
In the United States newspapers, the likelihood of mentioning a surviving pet and requesting donations to animal-related charities were roughly equal. However, in Switzerland, only one pet survivor (a cat) was mentioned, but fifteen obituaries requested donations to animal-related charities. Though it is unusual to mention pets in obituaries, long-term studies may be able to determine if it is a growing trend.
News: Karen B. London
Have you experienced the fear?
We were pet sitting a distinctive-looking mixed breed dog named Peanut when my husband (riding his bike home from work) called and left a message. He said that he had just seen a dog he thought was Peanut running down the street and he wanted to check on the situation.
The situation was that Peanut was safely at home enjoying a snooze and I was on the phone with a client. Even though I was actually looking at Peanut when I listened to my husband’s voice mail, I felt vaguely panicky in response to his words.
We are fortunate that we have never had a dog truly run away, but like most guardians, we have had a couple of whoopsie moments. House guests opening the door without paying attention to the dog, a broken leash, a slipped collar, and a screen door blowing open in the wind are just a few of the “life happens” events that could have meant a dog at risk from traffic and other dangers of the open road. Our dogs have always had good responses to “Wait” and solid recalls, so those little oops moments have never had tragic consequences. They’ve usually just been an opportunity to give our dog a cue and reinforce them for responding in a real-life situation. They were stressful but not terrifying.
If a dog bolts out the door and takes off, it can be a daunting task to get that dog safely back home. It’s a heart-dropping feeling to see a dog head out if you know that he may not come back if called. Even dogs who are very well trained can be in this situation if they bolt out of fear, such as during a thunderstorm that has made them panic or when fireworks are filling the sky.
Have you had a dog take off on you? Were you able to get the dog back and if so, how?
For years, I kept a supply of phenobarbital on hand, prescribed by my vet for my mixed-breed dog's seizure. It turned out to be a one-time thing, and eventually, I disposed of the drug. But I can testify that watching her in the grip of it was both scary and confusing.
As dog-lovers, most of us hope we're never faced with a number of canine health conditions. Seizures fall into that category. When they happen, however, it's helpful to understand what we're looking at and what we need to do next.
Seizures, which are caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain, can indicate a variety of conditions, some transitory, some longer-lasting. Our old friend "idiopathic" --or, of unknown origin--also comes into play more than either we or our vets would like.
As explained on the Texas A&M newswire, "For some dogs, a seizure is a one-time experience, but in most cases seizures reoccur. An underlying problem in the brain could be responsible for reoccurring seizures, often resulting in a diagnosis of epilepsy. Between the many causes of seizures in dogs and the often normal lab results, idiopathic epilepsy proves to be a frequent diagnosis." Other causes include toxin ingestion, tumors, stroke, or another of several related neurological disorders.
Dr. Joseph Mankin, clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, describes a typical seizure. “The dog may become agitated or disoriented, and then may collapse on its side. It may exhibit signs of paddling, vocalization, and may lose bladder control. The seizure may last for a few seconds up to a few minutes, and often the dog will be disoriented or anxious afterward. Occasionally, a dog may be blind for a short period of time.”
When a dog is in the grip of a seizure, there's little we can do, other than to keep our hands away from his or her mouth. Afterward, the most important thing we can do is take the pup to the vet for investigation into the cause. Fortunately, a number of treatments, ranging from allopathic (Western medicine) to complementary (including acupunture) exist.
Like most things, especially those related to health, knowing what we're dealing with is half the battle.
For more on this topic, read Dr. Sophia Yin's excellent overview.
News: Karen B. London
Just like a baby (and maybe cuter)
Years ago, my husband brought our seven-month old son to an all-day seminar I was giving on dog aggression so that I could feed him during the breaks. In many situations, a man carrying a baby would attract a lot of attention from women, but not in this case. There were about 200 people at the seminar, and approximately 180 of them were women. During the course of the day, only a handful of them approached my husband, and all but two of them came over to share puppy photos with him. (“Look! You have a young animal in your life. I have a young animal in my life, too!”)
I’ve noticed over the years that in the world of dogs, there are many people who are just not that into kids. It’s especially true for people whose professional lives revolve around dogs. I’m fond of saying that as a group, we dog people are not very “breedy.” Of course there are tons of exceptions (I myself have two human children), but many dog people are not as child-oriented as the rest of the population.
Any couple who does not have children has probably faced questions and criticisms about that, which is obviously rude. It’s thoughtless, narrow-minded, and potentially hurtful (not to sound judgmental or anything) to ask people personal questions about when they are going to have kids or why they don’t have kids. It’s nobody’s business, and it’s impossible to know if a couple has decided not to have children or if perhaps they have been unable to have children even though they want them very much. Either situation may involve a couple who is very focused on their canine companions, and that is a beautiful thing.
One couple took an unusual approach to letting their families know that they should not expect a human grandchild. They had a photo shoot with their puppy that mimicked the popular “new baby” photo sessions. The result was a gorgeous set of photos by Elisha Minnette Photography. It looks like they enjoyed themselves and judging by the response, many people share their sense of humor.
>Are you tempted to do a “new dog” photo shoot with your best friend?
News: Karen B. London
A mess that made us laugh
I’m in favor of keeping dogs safe when they are in moving vehicles, and that includes not allowing any part of their bodies to be outside the car. There are many dangers to dogs when they ride with their heads hanging out the window, yet seeing dogs enjoy themselves in this way nearly always makes me smile. Recently, I saw one particular dog riding with his face out in the wind looking thrilled with the experience, and it did more than make me smile.
In fact, it did two more things. One, I laughed out loud, as did my sons who were both with me in the car. Two, it made me aware of yet another danger of having dogs stick their heads out of the window. Namely, they could cause an accident by making a nearby driver (me!) laugh too hard for too long.
If I had to guess, I’d say the dog was a St. Bernard crossed with an English Mastiff, and I’m sure he weighed one-and-a-half times what I do. His lips were blowing in the breeze in that delightful way that only happens to dogs with big flews.
What really made us laugh was the enormous amount of slobber on the outside of the dark blue car in which he was riding. The door underneath him was covered with layers and layers of drool lines, some of which went down to the bottom edge of the car. Most of the lines were at an angle towards the lower back end of the car, suggesting that the wind had blown the slobber. It looked like a frozen waterfall except that it wasn’t nearly as shiny.
If you have a drooling dog, has that dog decorated either the inside or the outside of your car?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Not all “scaredy” dogs have been mistreated.
“She must have been abused,” is a comment I hear with alarming regularity. When a dog cowers and shakes or barks and growls at a person wearing a hat, it’s natural to think that the strong reaction is proof of previous harsh treatment by someone wearing a hat. It’s easy to conclude that a dog who’s scared of children was teased by the neighborhood Dennis the Menace. Similarly, it’s logical to assume that a dog would only react aversely to a broom after having had terrifying experiences with one.
Without a doubt, far too many dogs suffer abuse, but not all dogs who seem to have been abused have been treated badly. Some are fearful because they were inadequately socialized, or have a genetic tendency to be fearful, or both. As often as not, a history of abuse is not a factor.
The most common scenario that leads people to conclude that a dog has been abused is the dog who’s fine with women but scared of men. In these cases, while it’s possible that a man abused the dog, the fact that a dog is afraid of men doesn’t prove the theory. Typically, dogs who have fearful tendencies are more scared of men than of women. I’ve met hundreds of dogs who were only scared of men, but exactly two who feared women more. The fact is, dogs who are fearful have a natural propensity to be more afraid of men. Nobody knows for sure why this is, but it’s likely that men’s larger size, broader shoulders, deeper voices and facial hair make them more intimidating.
Another reason that dogs might be more afraid of men was suggested by a study reported in Current Biology,“Correlated changes in perceptions of the gender and orientation of ambiguous biological motion figures.” When motion was detected only on pointlight displays*, observers perceived an interesting difference between male and female movement. Figures considered masculine in gait seemed to be approaching, while both feminine and gender-neutral gaits were seen as heading away. Fearful dogs are typically most frightened when something scary moves toward them—no wonder they find men more alarming than women.
Scent may also be a factor. A recent experiment, “Olfactory exposure to males, including men, causes stress and related analgesia in rodents,” reported in Nature Methods, showed that mice and rats react differently to male and female experimenters because of differences in the way that they smell. That means that all studies of these rodents’ behavior may have been influenced by the gender of the people conducting the study. The test animals became highly stressed and exhibited decreased pain responses in the presence of human males; even T-shirts worn by men (but not those worn by women) caused this reaction.
The rodents were similarly stressed by odors from males of a range of species, including dogs, cats, guinea pigs and even other rodents. Males release certain pheromones in larger concentrations than females, and these fearinducing chemicals are shared among mammals, which means that dogs could also be affected by them. Scent differences could very likely affect dogs and cause them to be more frightened around men.
The assumption that fear of men indicates a history of abuse by a man is not the only one that may be erroneous. Many people are sure that dogs who react negatively to people with hats or backpacks proves past abuse by a person sporting those same objects. While again, this is possible, it’s more likely that the dog is simply unfamiliar with the objects themselves and the way that they change people’s appearance. Many react fearfully to a changed silhouette, becoming frightened, for example, by the sight of someone they know and love wearing a hat. Once the person removes the hat, the dog switches to happy greeting behavior.
Another commonly misunderstood area relates to the fear of children. Many dogs are skittish around children because of their erratic behavior, especially if they were not well socialized to them at an early age. After all, from a dog’s perspective, kids behave in peculiar and unexpected ways. They change direction suddenly, roll on the ground, move at variable speeds, make weird noises and are generally high-energy, bipedal whirling dervishes. Dogs who are naturally fearful may find excitable, loud humans in motion to be unpredictable, which is frightening. (On the flip side, there are fearful dogs who do fine with kids, but are terrified of adults. Usually, such dogs have had positive experiences with children and are used to their erratic behavior.)
If a dog’s fearfulness toward specific types of people or certain everyday items doesn’t necessarily mean that the dog has been abused, how can you tell if your dog suffered from abuse in the past? The honest answer is that— unless you have the dog’s full backstory— you can never know for certain. However, some clues may help you make an educated guess. Abuse is less likely as an explanation for a dog’s fearfulness if the dog’s reactions fit the pattern associated with dogs who are naturally fearful. The most common pattern is for such dogs to be cautious around strangers, especially men, and to be worse around tall, deep-voiced men with beards, or anyone carrying things—garden implements, brooms or mops, or a clipboard, or wearing sunglasses, a backpack or a hat. Dogs with a generally fearful approach to the world often react most vigorously when unfamiliar people approach, look directly at them, stand up from a sitting position or reach down to pet them.
If the dog has sustained multiple injuries, such as broken bones or teeth, or has scars on the face and body, abuse is more likely. Of course, those injuries could be a result of accidents, and some forms of abuse leave no scars. Still, a dog with unexplained evidence of physical trauma is more likely to have been a victim of abuse than a dog without it.
If a dog’s fear is highly specific, it is more likely to be based on trauma, which could have come in the form of abuse. So, if a dog is afraid of freckled, redheaded children with glasses in the age range of 10 to 12 years, but fine with all other kids, it’s more likely that a negative experience with a child of that description caused the fear. On the other hand, if a dog is only okay with children who are older than about 16, my bet would be that the dog lacks experience with a wide range of children and is only comfortable with children who are more adult-like in size and behavior. Similarly, if the dog is okay with men unless they are wearing loafers with a buckle, I would be inclined to suspect abuse. Specificity of fears is more likely to indicate abuse, because dogs who are generally fearful are usually set off by a wider range of triggers.
Even in the case of a specific fear, we have to be careful about assuming that abuse was the cause. For example, I had a client whose dog was fearful of and aggressive toward only one person. Sounds like that person might have beaten the dog, right? Not in this case. The man the dog was afraid of was the neighbor who had saved the dog’s life during a house fire; the wonderful man went into the house and carried the dog out before the firefighters arrived. Until then, the dog liked this man, but was terrified of him after the fire, presumably because he associated the man with the horrible experience.
While anyone who loves dogs wants to know if a particular dog has been abused, the same process is used to help a dog overcome fears of any origin. Classical conditioning, desensitization and patience will serve people and dogs equally well. It’s critical not to force a frightened dog into situations that provoke fear, but instead, to protect the dog from scary circumstances. Be gentle and kind and refrain from using punishment. Feel free to comfort any dog who is scared without worrying about the common (but misplaced) warning that this will reinforce the fear. Accept that many fearful dogs never become gregarious, go-with-the-flow types, and love them for who they are rather than who you think they should be.
Some people seem relieved when I tell them that their dog may not have been abused, while others seem disappointed to give up the “feel good” story of adopting a dog who was mistreated. I empathize with both groups.
I can understand the relief, and I can also understand how gratifying it feels to give a loving home to a dog who only knew cruelty before. And while I certainly can’t say definitively which dogs with unknown histories have been abused and which haven’t, I agree with other progressive trainers and behaviorists that abused dogs are not as common as one might think.
Many wonderful clients whose dogs are fearful and reactive have said to me, “People are going to think we’ve abused her, but I swear we’ve never hurt her.” It’s a pleasure when I can reassure them that I do believe them, and for very good reason.
* Point-light displays are made by filming people, animals or objects with reflective markers or point lights attached to the major joints, and then processing the video so that only the point lights are visible.
Recently we reported on the use of genetic testing of dogs in a Manhattan luxury co-op.That time it was used to ferret out the breeds that a co-op board thought unsuitable for its residents, including Basset Hound, St. Bernard, and even Shih Tzu. It even went so far as requiring such testing to detail the percentage of each breed in any mixed dog—a ridiculous expectation because of the unreliability for such current DNA testing.
But now there is another story from New York, or in this case, Brooklyn, that actually focuses attention on the misadventures of the dog guardians themselves. While this story involves DNA testing too, it isn’t to finger breeds, but to identify which dogs were allowed to defecate (and do other messy things) inside of the One Brooklyn Bridge Park condo complex. This condo is one of those few dog friendly ones, even boosting a Wag Club (grooming and training center) on its ground flour. It has 440 units, and it's estimated to also be home to 175 dogs. But, get this, some people have been allowing their dogs to relieve themselves inside the building, on staircases, along hallways and even in elevators! Incredible, isn’t it? Even bad weather can’t justify such discourtesy and lack of common decorum. As was noted in the article:
“During December, the memo revealed, there were 52 reported occurrences, ‘a mix of diarrhea, feces, urine and vomit: found on virtually every floor including the main lobby and north and south lobbies; found in all five elevators and with the staff cleanup time ranging from 10 to 50 minutes (average time roughly 20 minutes) per incident.’”
So the decision was made to have all resident dogs have their DNA registered and kept on file to help to find who was fouling the common area. Do note that this building, where a two-bedroom goes for $2.5 million, is welcoming to dogs, its board president has a Shih Tzu-Poodle mix (that wouldn’t be allowed in that Manhattan co-op), so they clearly understand that mistakes can happen. As was reported:
In fact, the building had maintained a very tolerant position toward dogs that couldn’t make it to the ground floor. If your dog had an accident, you took care of it as best you could and then told the concierge, who alerted a porter to clean up the remains.
But certainly enough is enough, so it was decided that more needed to be done. The board went ahead and employed a service called Poo Prints, a subsidiary of a biotech company in Tennessee, which has attracted over 1,000 apartment and condominium buildings around the country to its service. So for the low cost of $35 for such each test and registration—balance that out by the cost of an unit in that building—everyone can hope the soiling will stop and the true culprits are caught. Even though this measure might have an element of shaming in it, it does seem to have helped. Since May when the program started, seven matches were made with fines of $250. And one resident was even caught twice.
What do you think? Any other suggestions of how to get people to act responsibly when it comes to picking up after their dogs? And while allowing your dog to poop inside a building and expecting others to clean up for you seems to be outlandish, there are still those who seem to refuse to pick up after their pups in parks, along trails and sidewalks too. This is the number one problem that communities still have about our dogs, and sadly, it reflects badly on all of us. So would love to come up with creative solutions, do you have any that have worked in your area?
Great news! A small town in Spain, Trigueros del Valle, has become the first to acclaim that dogs and cats are “non-human residents” awarding them equal rights to co-exist alongside their human counterparts. With only a population of 300, Trigueros del Valle, has become the first municipality in Spain to enshrine the rights of “pets” alongside those of their human residents.
Pedro J. Pérez Espinosa, the socialist mayor of the town in the Castilla y León province of Valladolid, introduced the so-called Renedo Declaration to guarantee the rights of dogs and cats as citizens of the town.
“Dogs and cats have been living among us for over a thousand years,” said the mayor after the measure was voted in during a plenary session on Monday. “And the mayor must represent not just the human residents but must also be here for the others.”
The animal bill of rights was approved unanimously by the new town council.
It comprises 13 articles including statements such as “all residents are born equal and have the same right to existence” and “a resident, whether human or non-human, is entitled to respect.”
It also goes on to outline basic tenets against cruelty to animals such as article 9a. that states: “No non-human resident should be exploited for the pleasure or recreation of man,” And article 6b. that states “the abandonment of a non-human resident is a cruel and degrading act.”
Animal charities hailed the move and said they hoped it would be introduced across Spain. "This is a great day for humans and non-human citizens alike," said a statement from animal rights NGO, Rescate 1.
“Today, we are closer as species and we are now more human thanks to the sensitivity and intelligence shown by the people of Trigueros del Valle,” the charity said.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
A therapy dog overcomes her own fear and helps young patients gain invaluable insights.
Holly looked down into the swimming pool, paws extended over the edge, intently watching as her ball on a rope floated away. Head and shoulders thrust forward, she wanted desperately to retrieve it, but not at the risk of leaping into the air with an uncertain landing. The adolescents of 2 South called, “Holly, get it!” She had a strong prey drive, and would chase anything moving: a leaf, a ball, a bird, a squirrel (her favorite) or my slipper tossed across the room. She rocked precariously on the ledge as if she was about to let go and take the plunge. But then she backed up, and looked at me with that helpless stare.
It was summer now; the days were warm, and the outdoor swimming pool of the psychiatric hospital was open. Gail, the recreational therapist, invited me to conduct animal-assisted therapy sessions at the pool instead of in the hospital, and I accepted these invitations gladly. After all, Holly was more than just a therapy dog. She was a Retriever, bred to leap into ice-cold streams or lakes; mouth the bird shot out of the sky without injuring a single feather; swim to the shore and carry it to her companion, the hunter, presenting an unscathed bird. I had a water dog.
With a swimsuit underneath my slacks and a blue UCLA jacket, I came fully prepared to get wet along with Holly. Gail—whistle on a lanyard around her neck—looked like a lifeguard when she met us on the pool deck. The kids were already splashing around, some playing volleyball with a freedom of movement they didn’t show inside the walls of the hospital. The water seemed to calm and soothe them.
When I unhooked Holly’s collar with its jangling tags and untied her blue-and-gold UCLA scarf, her behavior also changed. She was no longer the calm therapy dog who worked in adolescent psychiatry. Excited, she ran joyous “victory laps” around the pool. Removing her “uniform” signaled that she was off duty, no longer a working dog. The sight and sounds of water added to her frenzy, and I had to hold onto her with both hands.
UCLA People-Animal Connection director, K.C., always concerned about safety issues, warned that the kids couldn’t be in the water at the same time as the dog. She recalled nearly drowning when a swimming dog accidentally placed a paw on her shoulder, pulling her underwater. When I made the disappointing announcement, the kids groaned and booed. “I want to swim with Holly,” yelled Jason, a 10-year-old with attention-deficit disorder and hyperactivity, as he circled the pool in loud protest. I had to be as creative as possible to make the session work.
I asked the teenagers to wait on the steps of the pool, where each would have a turn to throw a ball attached to a rope as far as they could into the water. Holly was to swim out and retrieve it, hold it in her mouth, then swim back and return it to the thrower. Eddie tossed the first ball; the wiry 11-year-old was so nervous about being first that he dropped the rope behind him twice before he finally figured out how to swing it in the air and hurl it forward. The ball landed at the deep end of the pool. Good throw!
Holly never took her eyes off it. I released her and gave the signal, “Holly, get it!” She raced down the steps, pushed off the last one and, treading smoothly through the pool’s blue water, reached the floating ball. She mouthed the rope attached to it, and with the ball dangling, turned back toward Eddie, holding onto her prey without so much as a splash.
“Look at her feet—she swims like a duck,” he called, watching her glide through the water. Reaching the steps, she dropped the ball into his waiting hand. Everyone applauded. Eddie smiled proudly at his accomplishment. Most of the kids had never seen a Retriever’s webbed feet gliding through the water with the ease and grace of an amphibian. “She was born to swim,” I said. But not in a pool!
At the beach, Holly would race from the sand into the surf chasing her yellow tennis ball, and when her feet could no longer touch bottom, she would propel those athletic legs through the water like paddles. Undaunted by turbulent tides, she would disappear under a crashing wave and surface again, never losing track of her prize. She would reach for it with her mouth, turn and swim back to me, drop it into my hand, and then stand in the shallow water, poised for the next throw.
When she started pool retrievals, she had to learn to use the concrete steps to get out. Initially, she would swim in circles, growing tired as she searched for the non-existent shoreline. The kids would sit on the steps calling, “Holly, here,” and she soon discovered which way was out.
But the one activity that still eluded her was jumping off the ledge of the pool, a drop of several feet, into the water. Now, she stood there staring as the ball drifted away, while we all yelled in chorus, “Holly, jump!” She turned to look at me, her eyes asking for help with this dilemma.
Holly looked to me for everything she wanted. I was the keeper of her ball, toys, food and water, her walks, her comfort or discomfort, her freedom or confinement. I was responsible for her survival. If she hurt her paw, she would hold it up and look at me pathetically. It was not surprising that as the bobbing ball moved farther away from her, she stared hard at me. But this time, I did not help her. She would have to jump into the pool and retrieve it for herself. She had to face her fears just like the rest of us.
In adolescent psychiatry, fear was a powerful motivator. Angry and defiant, 12-year-old Patty usually sauntered into group sessions ready for battle, fists clenched and poised to kick anyone in her way. She would be removed within minutes of her tirade, fighting and swearing at the staff as she was taken back to her room. She was never present long enough to interact with Holly Go Lightly, the canine therapist. Typically, Patty hid away, avoiding all social contact.
But in the swimming pool, Patty took on a different demeanor. Floating on her back, isolated from the group, she appeared peaceful, without “oppositional defiance,” as her behaviors were described in clinical reports: standing when told to sit and throwing her books on the floor when asked to open one. The water was therapeutic for her. There was freedom here. She didn’t show the aggression that had landed her in a psychiatric residential setting.
Patty had been expelled from public school and labeled as having a “conduct disorder” because she fought with everyone and incited brawls on the school playground. In class and in therapy, she refused to follow rules and procedures, walking out and spewing obscenities at her teachers and therapists alike.
While Holly stood at the edge of the pool testing her confidence, I seized the opportunity to talk with the group about being afraid. They knew about fear—Patty especially. I learned that she had suffered physical abuse from the man her mother lived with. Patty’s mother, who was unable to control her behavior, described her simply as a “bad kid.” Child Protective Services finally removed her from the home and, since she was out of control, referred her for psychiatric evaluation and treatment. With nowhere to go, and little change in her behavior, she was still in residence at the hospital.
I didn’t ask them to talk about what made them afraid. My technique was always to use Holly as the facilitator, keeping the focus on the child’s relationship with the dog.
“How can we help Holly overcome her fear of jumping into the pool?” I asked. Several children spoke up. Fifteen-year-old Alan said, “Throw her in … she’ll get over it.” An older girl, Barbara, about l7, said, “No, just pet her and be kind to her, and she’ll act brave.” Unknowingly, they were talking about how they dealt with their own demons. Alan showed bravado, suppressing any doubts or anxieties he might feel; it was difficult to relate to him, so protective was his cover. Barbara was withdrawn. She needed special attention before she would engage in most activities. She did little on her own without someone to encourage her.
Patty spoke for herself.
“Well, we need to show her that it’s safe.” This was an answer made in heaven, and coming from this child, it was profound. I jumped at the chance to use it.
“How can we show her it’s safe?” I asked.
“She can watch me,” she said, and in that instant, the young girl stood next to Holly at the edge of the pool and leaped into the air as if from a diving board, coming down feet first, straight into the water, splashing everyone around her. Now she began paddling about, watching the dog’s reaction. Holly just stared.
One at a time, the other kids followed Patty’s lead, showing Holly how it was done, until the entire group of nine children had landed in the pool and were splashing and thrashing around in the water. Some of them swam back and forth in front of Holly, calling her name. The Retriever inched forward, paws hanging over the edge. Still, she hesitated.
They began calling in unison: “Holly, jump! Holly, jump!” Patty grabbed the roped ball, threw it across the pool and swam after it, modeling for Holly what she was supposed to do, while the kids continued chanting. Holly leaned over and stared straight down as if she was measuring the distance of the drop into the water. She was almost in, and they continued to coax her.
It had become a group project, and it was thrilling to see these children, usually isolated and depressed, now smiling and calling and encouraging this hesitant and fearful dog to take the risk —to let go. They were working together as a group. The therapist was speechless. She grabbed my hand and squeezed it. Not only was Patty part of the group effort, she was leading it. Socialization was the primary goal for these teenagers, and they were achieving it.
Finally, Holly could wait no longer. She let go of the safety of her concrete perch and, like a bird leaving the nest, dove into the air and hit the water with a resounding splash. She sailed after her ball as if it were alive. The kids cheered. The staff cheered. Even the pool manager cheered.
Holly captured the prey, the object of her courage, scooped it up with her mouth, and headed toward the steps of the pool, where Patty now sat waiting for her. She released the ball into Patty’s hand, following the protocol of retrieving to the thrower. In those few moments, this child had become the leader of the pack. Holly flashed her famous Golden grin as if she knew she had fulfilled her legacy. She had conquered her fear of leaping from a high ground into a body of water, a skill that all working Retrievers must have. I underlined this occasion.
“You taught her not to be afraid,” I called out to the group. Every child smiled with pride.
And then I looked at Patty, sitting on the steps, hair soaked and face glowing. Her arms were wrapped tightly around the wet dog’s neck, and she nuzzled against Holly’s head.
I said directly to her, “And you showed her how to do it—to just let go and trust the water.”
“Yes,” she smiled, “I showed her it was safe.” Patty turned and kissed the top of Holly’s head, right on what I always called her “smart bump.” The kids splashed their way over to the pair and proceeded to pet and hug the dog, telling her how brave she had been. There was lots of chatter and laughter and celebration. We would all remember this day.
The kids from 2 South had become empowered by the simple act of bravery by an animal, paired with the cooperative effort of the group. The water was a metaphor for facing their fears. In helping Holly let go and jump, perhaps they would find their own courage.
After that day, the therapy dog was willing to jump into the pool without all of the hullabaloo. Just the throw of her beloved tennis ball and the words, “Holly, jump!” and she would leap into the water with confidence.
Patty left her room to come to all of our therapy sessions in the hospital or at the pool, to check on Holly. She needed to make sure that Holly was no longer nervous or afraid.
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