work of dogs
Bazz, wearing his new bee-proof working gear, is Australia’s first apiary dog. Beekeeper Josh Kennett devised this suit so that his Lab, and working partner, Bazz could help sniff out a virulent bee disease, the American foulbrood.
Dogs can’t get near a hive of bees without being aggressively chased away. So Kennett got the idea to train Bazz from his American counterparts but in the U.S. the colder temperatures negate the need for protection.
“Their winters are far colder than ours, with snow over the top of beehives. We don't have that situation here in South Australia.
“So I’ve tried to develop a suit the dog can wear and hopefully avoid being stung.”
He also said that he tried a variety of prototypes because he wanted a suit that “doesn’t restrict him too much,” so had to do a lot of trial and error, especially with the head part.
After a long training period that was started by a professional detection dog trainer, and refined by Kennett to get Bazz used to the suit and to the hives, the beekeeper team is now ready to go
“We’ve now proven the concept, he can find the infected hives.
“To fully cover a dog up and expect it to do the same thing, it takes time to change how he behaves and to get used to that suit.”
Source: ABC Australia
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog to the rescue
June 21 is “Take Your Dog to Work Day.” For those of us who treasure our dogs company, being able to have our companions with us on the job is such a bonus. I’ve been blessed as an animal control officer to be able to bring my girl Breeze, a rescued Doberman, with me to work. On a rough day in the field, just being able to reach over and stroke Breeze’s silky coat can make the day bearable. I provide a soft bed next to my desk when I’m in the office and she’s expected to lie there quietly while I work. Of course, sometimes when there are several employee dogs wanting to socialize, we do allow them a play break. In the truck, she snoozes between calls and gets a potty break when I take mine. She doesn’t leave the truck unless invited and I take every precaution to keep her safe.
When we have our dogs join us at work, It’s critical that they be clean and well-behaved, and that we protect them from well-meaning but pushy or in-your-face people. Make sure your dog is comfortable with strangers and always expect that people will do silly thing to dogs. Even the nicest dog can bite so make sure your dog is enjoying any attention from co-workers or customers.
An added bonus to having Breeze along is that sometimes a scared stray will come to another dog but not a person. If my offers of treats, sweet talk and toys haven’t done the trick with a loose dog, sometimes bringing Breeze out is all it takes. On a recent call, two 5-month-old hound mix pups were dumped far out on a rural road. Sadly, one pup was killed by a car the first day, while the terrified and traumatized littermate wouldn’t come anywhere near people. He had taken up residence in an empty shed, but the minute I pulled up he took off through the pasture toward the nearby forest. Breeze was sitting next to me on the seat watching the pup intently. I got permission from the property owner and then took Breeze into the pasture where the shed was. Breeze loves everyone and is sort of the social greeter with dogs and people everywhere she goes.
The pup stopped at the sight of Breeze. With his tucked tail and hunched posture, he was the picture of dejected loneliness. I unclipped Breezes leash and said “get the puppy, Breeze.” She raced across the pasture, eager to meet a new friend, while the pup watched warily. As she reached him his tail began to wag and he curled his body into a submissive gesture of appeasement as she gave him the sniff over. Feeling more confident, the pup began to kiss her muzzle and press himself as close to her as he could.
As soon as I could see that they were buddied up, I sat down in the grass to be less threatening and pulled out a handful of treats. I called to Breeze, who came running with the pup close behind. I gave Breeze a treat and tossed one to the pup who stopped just out of reach. His body language was still terribly afraid but he clearly wanted to trust. Within minutes the pup worked his way close enough to take cookies out of my hand. In no time at all, he crawled into my lap, wiggling and wagging and soaking up the attention like he could never get enough. I slipped a leash on him but he immediately panicked. Obviously, he had never had one on so I scooped him up and carried him back to the truck with Breeze trotting by my side.
The hound pup was adopted soon after and he was just one of many examples of Breeze’s presence making my job easier.
I’d love to hear from readers who also take their dogs to work. Tell us the best part of having your buddy along on the job (or the worst!).
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Nashville’s finest bookstore has new workers.
In the weeks before my business partner Karen Hayes and I opened Parnassus Books in Nashville, I would bring my 16-yearold dog Rose to the store. I folded her up inside her soft bed and then stretched her out in the warm sun that fell through the front window. She would sleep while I painted a cabinet or shelved books. Rose, who had once been a Chihuahua/Terrier mix, was now nothing but a limp little sock puppet of a dog, and I carried her with me everywhere. I wanted her to be a store dog. If I was going to have a bookstore, it seemed only right that Rose should have a job. I thought that she could stay in her bed by the cash register and people could pet her, but it didn’t work out that way. Having lived a long and happy life, Rose died two weeks after we opened.
The truth of the matter is that Rose, no matter how much I loved her, was not store-dog material. For one thing, she hated children, and while she almost never actually bit them, she could bark and lunge and snap without provocation. At times she could be so ferocious that children felt bitten without the actual bite. The only reason I even thought she might be able to be a store dog late in life was that she could no longer walk, and her sight and hearing were negligible. She just liked the petting, and the size of the hand running over her small flank didn’t matter anymore.
Karen thought the bookstore should have a piano, and so she got a piano. I thought the bookstore should have a dog, but now I didn’t have a dog, and I was too sad to go out and get another one.
So we hired a part-time dog, a sleek, short-haired Miniature Dachshund named Lexington who came in with our events manager, Niki Castle, once or twice a week. Lexington was from New York City, where she and Niki had lived before moving south. As a city dog, she was not afraid of crowds. She was used to strangers making over her. She was used to children getting in her face. Frankly, she liked children getting in her face. Her M.O. was to race around the store 10 times, greet everyone and then skid back into the office, where Niki would scoop her up and drop her into a sling she wore across her chest. There, in her pouch, Lexington napped. Twenty minutes later, she’d take off running again. It was the cycle of her day.
No one could complain about the job Lexington was doing. Children marched back to the office and demanded to see the Dachshund, and off she would go to the picture-book section. She did not gnaw on the spines of the books on lower shelves. She did not lose her temper, never once, when a small hand tried to keep her from her appointed nap by holding onto her tail. She was in every way top flight. But that didn’t mean I didn’t want my own store dog.
“We have a store,” my husband would say when he called about various shelter or foster-care dogs we had seen on the Internet. “Do you think he would be a good store dog?”
But if you don’t have a store, how can you know? How can you know if your dog can be trusted not to dart through the continually opening doors, or if he’ll jump up and grab a fluttering scarf, or have accidents in hidden corners, or bite a child—even one child, one child who may have been asking for it in every possible way. How do you know that dog when you see him?
It turns out my husband knew. The Friday afternoon we walked into the Nashville Humane Association and my husband saw Sparky, he knew. He leaned over and lifted him out of his pen. “This one,” he said, without looking at a single other dog.
After 16 wonderful years with Rose, it’s hard for me not to panic when I see a tiny child toddling towards my dog, fingers outstretched. But regardless of size, Sparky gives every customer a fullbody wag, then drops to the ground to show his spotted tummy. Most children then drop to the ground as well and together they roll around.
There are always children who are nervous around dogs, who look stiffly away as though they’re being addressed by a crazy person in the subway, but Sparky is never pushy. If ignored, he will sit for a minute and try to puzzle out the situation (Child doesn’t want to play?). Then, coming up with no logical explanation, he simply walks away. So what about Lexington? After all, she was here first. All I can say is that while there have been some high-speed chases, there has been no competition. We’re bookstore enough for two small dogs, one who looks like a tiny supermodel, the other who resembles an unruly dandelion.
“Who’s this?” a woman asked me when Sparky put his front paws on the edge of the big, comfortable chair where she was sitting, reading a book. He butted his head against her knee.
“This is Sparky,” I said. “He’s the store dog.”
“What’s his job?” the woman asked me. “What does he do?”
I looked at her. She was scratching his ears. “This,” I said, stating what I thought was obvious. “He does this.”
Do store dogs encourage reading? I believe so, in the same way the rest of the staff encourages reading: by helping to create an environment you want to be in. Children beg their parents to take them to our bookstore long before they can read so that they can play on the train table and pet the store dog. Trains and dogs then become connected to reading.
Sparky and Lexington are also happy to provide a complementary service for people who don’t have dogs of their own—children, parents and non-parents alike—so they too can have a little snuggle before they go home. Our store dogs aren’t here just to create a positive association with books; they’re also here to create positive associations with dogs.
A high school English teacher called several months ago to say her class had read one of my novels and she wanted to bring the students to the store for an hour before we opened so that I could talk to them about the book. It was early in Sparky’s tenure and I thought a closed store with a limited number of people inside would be a good trial run. The 20 or so high school students pulled their chairs into a lazy circle. They were hip, disaffected and slouching until Sparky trotted in. As it turns out, there’s no one, not even a high school senior, who’s cool enough to ignore a small, scruffy dog.
Sparky worked the room like a politician, hopping into one lap and then another, walking over knees, until he had pressed his face to every person in the room. When he was finished, he came and settled in my lap. That was when the students looked at me with awe. Sure, I had written a novel, but they felt certain they could write novels if they felt like it. What I had going for me was the love and devotion of a really good dog.
I have no ax to grind with e-books. I care much more that people read than about the device they chose to read on. But I do believe in small businesses, and in the creation of local jobs, and of having a place where people can come together with a sense of community to hear an author read or attend story hour or get a great recommendation from a smart bookseller.
And I like a good store dog, a dog who knows how to curl up on your lap when you’re thumbing through a book. A virtual Sparky? A one-click Lexington? Believe me, it wouldn’t be the same.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
A Texas Terrier helps a species threatened with extinction
Cairns, or stone piles, have for centuries abounded in the Scottish Highlands, marking everything from burial grounds to property boundaries. It was the Cairn Terrier, with his powerful nose, sharp teeth and aggressive personality, who helped Highlanders keep rats and other vermin from infesting both the cairns and their stone cottages. Indispensable then in Scotland, another Cairn has become indispensable today on the beaches of North Padre Island, Texas, where he is helping save the rare Kemp’s ridley sea turtle from extinction.
His name is Ridley and he is the family pet of Donna Shaver, PhD, director of the Sea Turtle Science and Recovery program at Padre Island National Seashore, who has been working tirelessly to establish a secondary nesting beach for these turtles since she first volunteered there as a Cornell University student 28 years ago. (She’s even refused several promotions in order to remain with the turtle program.)
Little more than two decades ago, the Kemp’s ridley—the most vulnerable of the seven species of sea turtle—was declared “genetically extinct” by many conservationists; the turtle’s numbers had dwindled to about 250 to 300 breeding females in the world, virtually all of whom nested only on Rancho Nuevo, a single 30-mile stretch of Mexican beach roughly 200 miles south of Brownsville, Texas. From 1978 to 1988, in an effort to create a secondary birthing area, a few thousand eggs were flown annually to Padre Island to hatch and grow for a year in captivity before release. It was called “head-starting,” after President Lyndon Johnson’s preschool program for disadvantaged children.
“This program is so important—if a catastrophe were to strike the main nesting beach in Mexico,” Shaver says,“there still might not be enough nesting here in Texas to preserve the species.” Shaver’s concern is fact-based. In the summer of 1979, an underwater oil well blew out about 500 miles from the Mexican nesting beach and the drifting slick threatened 10,000 baby turtles with a gooey death; many were saved, however, thanks to the efforts made by rescuers in a fleet of Mexican helicopters, which flew them to safety.
This sort of threat is why every single Texas nest is valuable. “We have had a huge increase in nesting along the 67 miles of Padre Island National Seashore during the last five years, from five in 2000 to 93 last year,” explains Shaver. The curve is indeed upward; the number of nests is increasing along the entire Texas coastline, from one or two nests every one to three years in 1980 to 195 in 2008. But for the turtle’s future to be secured, the number needs to grow by about 10 times—or to approximately 1,950— within the next 10 to 20 years.
The Kemp’s ridley is one of the fastest nesting of all sea turtles, taking only 30 minutes to an hour to crawl out of the surf, dig her nest, lay her 100 or so eggs (known as a clutch), cover the nest and return to the Gulf. During nesting season, the beach is patrolled hourly by volunteers and National Park Service rangers who look for the distinctive tracks in the sand or actively nesting turtles. Found eggs are relocated to the humidity- and temperature-controlled incubation building at NPS headquarters. Despite this, some nests are still missed. At about 80 pounds on average, the Kemp’s ridley is the smallest and lightest of all the sea turtle species, and the tracks she makes on her way from the water to the nesting site are quickly blown away by the wind. Shaver knew there were more eggs to be found, and it was driving her crazy.
Two years ago, Shaver began to exploit Ridley’s acute sense of smell to locate these elusive eggs. “I’ve known for years that dogs and coyotes are two of the prime predators of wild turtle nests in many nations, especially in Central America. And dogs are also used to find illegal drugs or explosives at airports and locate trapped people after earthquakes. So I was anxious to see if Ridley could find the ‘missing’ nests,” says Shaver.
When Ridley was just a puppy, Shaver and her fiancé—Stephen Kurtz, a National Park Service turtle patrol volunteer— had trained him to locate objects by hiding liver and chicken treats around the house and telling him to “go find.” Then, when he was about a year old, they began taking him to the beach for his next big step: identifying the smell of turtle eggs.
At a freshly emptied turtle nest, Ridley’s attention was directed toward its pungent scents of hatchling turtles; leftover egg fluid; and remnants of the mother turtle’s lubricating mucus, which coats the eggs as they’re laid. Ridley soaked it up into his Cairn “hard drive,” and after he got a nose full, Shaver and Kurtz filled the empty nest with sand, walked him down the beach for about a half-hour, and then told him to “go find the nest.” Time after time, Ridley raced back to the exact site. Within about 10 weeks, he was ready to begin the real work of finding the few but critical “invisible nests” the Gulf wind had hidden.
Now, he is brought to the beach several times each year to find nests at track sites where humans have been unsuccessful, his Scottish Highland nose sniffing for the faintest scent of turtle eggs, with Shaver or Kurtz in hot pursuit. When he finds a nest, Ridley digs slightly, careful not to damage the eggs. Successful, he sits back and waits for his treat. “I actually think Ridley understands just how important what he’s doing is; he gets so excited when he finds a nest, even before he gets his reward,” says Shaver.
He’s been doing this work for a season and a half now, and this summer, expectations are high that he’ll be finding even more eggs. An extensive search-and-rescue operation began in April this year, and later this summer, as the baby turtles hatch, Ridley will be there watching, along with the television cameras and the crowds of squealing children who crowd the beach off Corpus Christi 10 to 20 mornings each year to see this miracle of regeneration. Ridley Shaver—in a role the 17th-century Scottish Highlanders who developed the breed could not have envisioned—not only lends a paw but most importantly, a nose to this environmental success story.
The good people at the Search Dog Foundation sent us this notice about a PBS show that is not to be missed.
Starting April 1st, PBS affiliates nationwide will feature SDF Search Teams as part of a series that celebrates shelter animals and the people whose lives they touch. For the first time, a video crew has captured the story of our teams -- from recruitment, to training, to pairing with a first-responder. The show is hosted by Jane Lynch, Emmy and Golden Globe-winning actress, singer, and comedian.
Click here to see the Dates/times in your area
Along with the Supreme Court hearing marriage equality cases this week, it also took time to issue a ruling on Tuesday on the legality of using warrantless searches using drug-sniffing dogs. On that score, the majority ruled that the Fourth Amendment right to keep the government out of your home extends to canine noses, so a warrant is needed.
“The police cannot, without a warrant based on probable cause, hang around on the lawn or in the side garden, trawling for evidence and perhaps peering into the windows of the home,” Justice Antonin Scalia said for the majority. “And the officers here had all four of their feet and all four of their companion’s planted firmly on that curtilage—the front porch is the classic example of an area intimately associated with the life of the home.”
Scalia was joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Clarence Thomas—certainly an unlikely mix of justices.
In his dissent, Justice Alito said that the court’s ruling stretches expectations of privacy too far. “A reasonable person understands that odors emanating from a house may be detected from locations that are open to the public, and a reasonable person will not count on the strength of those odors remaining within the range that, while detectable by a dog, cannot be smelled by a human.”
As one editorial noted, “They used the sniff test to establish probable cause to get a search warrant. But the sniffing itself was an illegal search, the court said. Imagine if this man were just sitting on his couch, smoking a joint. Would we be okay with police entering his house, based only on a tip from a lovable dog?”
This case involved a Miami-Dade narcotics detection canine, Franky, and his super-sensitive nose. Question being presented to the Supreme Count was, does a police K-9’s sniff outside a house give officers the right to get a search warrant for illegal drugs, or is the sniff itself an unconstitutional search? To Franky’s credit, his nose lead to the detection of 179 pot plants growing inside a Miami house.
Although the high court has approved drug-sniffing dogs in other major cases, including routine traffic stops, airport luggage or a drug-laden package in transit, the difference in this case is that Franky’s services were used at a private home. In the future, Franky and his co-workers will simply need to get a warrant first.
News: Guest Posts
Gratitude and honor prompt participation
WASHINGTON — The 2013 Presidential Inaugural Parade played host to another inaugural event.
Santa Rosa, Calif. based Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) made their inaugural debut in the parade, which also marked the first time a dog organization participated.
According to CCI National Director of Marketing Jeanine Konopelski the mother of a Skilled Companion Team from Virginia was the catalyst for the organization’s involvement.
Carina Elgin said her daughter Caroline’s Service Dog, Sajen changed her life and she wanted to show her gratitude to CCI and provide a platform for people to learn about the organization.
The Labrador - Golden Retriever mix black dog was partnered with Caroline 9 years ago.
The now 19 year old has grown up with her 11-year-old dog. Cerebral Palsy has limited Caroline Elgin’s mobility and impaired her speech.
And through the years, Sajen has opened more than just threshold doors for his partner.
He opened the door to a world of opportunity through his unconditional love that bridged barriers to socialization and resulted in building Caroline’s self confidence and independence.
As a young girl with a young Service Dog, Caroline joined a 4H Dog Club.
Despite her limited verbal ability and restricted hand motion, Caroline was able to command Sajen as she took him through Rally Obedience and Agility Trials.
She and Sajen earned a rainbow of ribbons each year in the annual Virginia Dog Show. Though she paced her dog through the rings from her joystick controlled wheelchair, she never asked for any special consideration and competed on equal ground with the other 4H dog handlers.
But Sajen’s ability to help open the door for CCI participation in the 2013 Inaugural Parade is perhaps his biggest achievement to date.
“I was so proud to be walking with Sajen. He has been my best friend and helper for nine years and will be retiring soon, but it was so special to walk with him down Pennsylvania Ave.,” said Caroline Elgin. “ He trotted along and wagged his tail the whole time like he knew this was something special.”
The inaugural parade includes representatives from all 50 states. Though CCI didn’t have a representative from each state, they had participants that stretched from the Atlantic to Pacific coast and included all five CCI Regions.
All four types of CCI Dogs were represented, including Skilled Companion Teams, Hearing Dogs, Facility Dogs, and a CCI Wounded Veteran Initiative Service Dog.
Puppy raisers from around the country also marched in the parade. The youngest puppy in the parade was 4-month old Shyla who is being raised by the Slater family in Upperville, Va. Sajen was the oldest dog in the parade.
“It was amazing how good all the dogs, even the little puppies were, but they are CCI dogs and just really know how to behave,” said Caroline Elgin.
The puppies were wearing their yellow training vests and the graduate dogs were wearing their blue CCI vests. However their human counterparts were all dressed in matching yellow hats and jackets with the organization logo on the back.
Caroline Elgin said some people commented that the outfits made them look like bananas, “but they were warm.”
CCI introduced their balloon dog mascot “Independence” who rode on the parade float with some of the participants. The large yellow dog wore a blue CCI vest and collar.
Caroline Elgin said, “I thought the float was "Labrador able"!
Event though the teams had a long day, she said it was great to be with all the other CCI participants.
She noted that it was already dark as they headed up the street, but when they turned the corner towards the White House reviewing stand the parade route was flooded with bright lights.
Caroline Elgin was on the side of the float closest to the President’s reviewing stand
“Vice-President Biden got really excited when he saw us,” said Carline Elgin. “He knows about CCI and his face really lit up when he saw us. He gave us the “thumbs up”.
She said President Barack Obama was busy having his picture taken, but turned around and got a huge smile on his face and waved when he saw them.
With Sajen by her side, Caroline Elgin matured from a young girl into a young woman. She is a currently a second year Graphic and Web Design student at the Art Institute of Virginia-Dulles and designer at www.labradorabledesigns.com. Her company makes a donation to CCI for each item sold.
Though Sajen’s paws help in many ways, she used modern technology to provide her first hand account of their participation in the 57th Inaugural Parade.
The day after the parade Caroline Elgin and Sajen were both pretty tired, but she said, “It was so exciting to represent CCI and people with disabilities. It was history.”
CCI was one of about 60 applicants chosen from nearly 3,000 parade applicants. Even though CCI made history marching in the 57th Presidential Inaugural Parade, the dogs trained by CCI to assist persons with disabilities make history on an individual basis every day.
“We’re so grateful for this chance for the world to know about Canine Companions for Independence,” said Carina Elgin. “The volunteers are thrilled to show everyone that this opportunity is out there to help enrich the lives of people with disabilities. I want more people like my daughter Caroline to be able to have a dog change their lives.”
CCI was founded in 1975 by Dr. Bonita Bergin and is the largest non-profit provider of trained Service Dogs. They have five regional training centers in the United States and are recognized worldwide for the excellence of their dogs and programs.
CCI provides Service, Hearing, Facility, and Skilled Companion Team dogs free of charge to approved applicants.
For more information, visit cci.org or call 1-800-572-BARK.
News: Guest Posts
A New Dog-in-training Joins Up
October and November have been the most exciting months of 2012 for Dogs for Conservation. More than a year of hard work and patience have paid off and we now have some tangible things to show for it!
In October 2012 we had the wonderful opportunity to both save a life and acquire another great detection dog! Formerly known as Allie, now named "Terra" (as in "Terra Firma"), this female Border Collie was found as a stray and was looking at her last days before being euthanized at a Texas shelter. That was when Ruff Mutts Border Collie Rescue saved her life and realized she had potential to be a working dog! Debbie Schwagerman, Director of Ruff Mutts, wrote:
“Allie actually came from the Wichita Falls animal shelter. She was picked up as a stray and no one claimed her. In fact, even after she was available for adoption, no one adopted her and no other rescue stepped up for her. I agreed to take her at the last minute, and she was transported out to me in Terrell. I knew from the minute I met her she was born to DO something.”
Terra was then evaluated and temporarily fostered by Bob and Karen Deeds of Canine Connection in Fort Worth, TX where she was deemed a wonderful prospect for detection work!
Soon after that, we at Dogs for Conservation contacted Bob Deeds about any dogs he knew of that might work out for our program … and the rest is history!! Terra is currently being trained by our head trainer Tiffanie Turner to detect the highly endangered Houston Toad! Terra is the sweetest girl who gives the best doggy hugs I have ever seen!! She is crazy about her ball, and that has been the key to teaching her how to "learn to earn” … she did not even know how to sit when we got her!
While Terra sniffs out toads, Ranger has stepped up his training a notch and has finally been introduced to a target odor. Many months of preparation and fun have led up to this time, and so for Ranger it is just another game! He has been learning how to use his nose properly and efficiently, learning how scent behaves in different terrain and weather, and of course his obedience training continues every day as well. All of these are pieces to the puzzle that will ultimately have our “puppy” working well in the real world in 2013. It amazes me daily how much he enjoys what he is doing… I am so proud of him!
Until next time, feel free to visit us on our website or on our Facebook page for regular updates on Ranger and Terra’s progress!!
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Lending a Helping Paw
“He’d be perfect as a therapy dog — perfect. You just have to help me stop him from biting so much.”
I wish I could say I’m making this up, but yes, I did have a client who said that, and yes, he truly thought his dog could be a great therapy dog. My client had the best of intentions, but it took a while to convince him that his pathologically shy and potentially dangerous dog was no better suited to therapy work than I am to being a ballerina.
However, a multitude of dogs are just what the doctor ordered, and it makes my heart all warm and gooey to think of the great work they do. Currently, an estimated 30,000 teams of what are called therapy dogs and handlers are certified through Delta Pet Partners and Therapy Dogs International, and there is little doubt that they are enriching the lives of thousands of people across the country.
A good dog-and-handler team does a lot more than just make people feel fleetingly happy. True therapy dogs — dogs who participate in structured programs designed by health care professionals (Animal Assisted Therapy, or AAT) — can decrease pain, improve mobility, speed up post-surgery healing and even calm autistic children as well as increasing their social interactions. That’s a pretty impressive body of work, and it is just the short list. A larger number of dogs and handlers participate in what are called Animal Assisted Activities (AAA), in which teams visit hospitalized children and senior-center residents. The petting, tricks and furry companionship can stimulate the release of massive quantities of the world’s greatest drug, the neurohormone oxytocin.
Another benefit: AAT and AAA can be as good for the providers as the recipients. Take it from me — watching a senior citizen glow while petting your dog and talking about the special pup she owned 70 years ago is guaranteed to put you in a good mood that lasts for hours.
However, you need to leave your rose-colored glasses at home if you and your dog are involved in AAT or AAA (I’m just going to call it “therapy” from now on, as long as we all understand that I’m using the term loosely). Just because you love your dog doesn’t mean everyone in a nursing home will want to meet her. Plus, your dog may actually hate the work, even though it wraps you in your own haze of oxytocin. In addition, your beloved dog may come home with an antibiotic-resistant bacteria like MRSA, which is commonly found in health-care facilities.
In other words, there’s a lot to learn about doing this work in a way that is truly helpful to others, safe for everyone involved and, as importantly, enjoyable for your dog. In this article, I’ll be focusing on the dogs, because, well, they pretty much drive the system.
Here are some criteria to consider when asking if your dog is suitable for therapy work. The most important job qualification is that the dog loves people, absolutely and completely. That doesn’t mean your dog lights up when you come home, and tolerates visitors. I’ve seen and heard of numerous dogs in AAT who adored their guardians — but strangers? Not so much. I’ve also watched a dog and her guardian spend an entire “therapy” session communing with one another in a nursing home. That’s not therapy, that’s a woman petting her dog while others watch. It might be useful in some circumstances, but most often, the dog needs to voluntarily approach strangers, make eye contact with them and put forth an effort to get close to them.
It’s important to distinguish these dogs from dogs who merely tolerate strangers. Willie’s response to people walking toward the house is: “Oh look! There’s another one! Can you believe it?” I get the impression he thinks that people are as rare as huge, juicy beef bones, and he just can’t believe his luck — they keep turning up randomly when he least expects them. So while he’d fill the “loves everyone” bill, he’d, uh, most likely knock the senior citizen out of her wheelchair with his tail.
Which brings us to the difference between manners and personality. Willie is trained to greet people politely, but I can’t expect him to leave his personality in the crate. Therapy dogs need to be calm — dogs who don’t slap senior citizens with their tails or pull IVs out of patients’ arms. The level of acceptable activity can vary depending on where and when the dog is working, but a calm demeanor goes beyond good training.
People who most benefit from a dose of oxytocin are often frail or otherwise physically compromised, and the dogs they interact with can’t emote all over them, forcing them to protect their face or their shoulder or their new hip. This is one reason so many dogs do well when they are older, even though they may have flunked the certification test when they were younger. If your dog was dismissed as too active to work in the Children’s Hospital when he was three, you might want to try again when he’s eight or 10, after he’s slowed down and is a little calmer about life in general.
Besides being physically calm, dogs need to be emotionally calm. That means they don’t go all pancake-eyed when someone grabs their head, or panic if a metal tray is dropped behind them. Essentially, a good therapy dog needs to behave in ways that most dogs don’t: unfazed when a child hugs them a little too hard before you can intervene, unreactive when the Alzheimer patient tries to grab their ears and screams when you step in. Can some nervous dogs be conditioned to be comfortable when “life happens”? Yes, they can; I know of several dogs who were originally terrified of strangers and ended up as great therapy dogs. But that’s the exception, not the rule. It’s a fool’s errand to try to make a reactive dog into a good therapy dog while he’s in treatment himself, and it’s not safe or respectful to anyone to try to make a “regular” dog into a one-in-a-million one.
This is a problem I’ve seen a bit too often: guardians whose dogs may have good reasons for being cautious or nippy, but who still insist that “it’s not the dog’s fault, and if everyone would just learn to be appropriate around dogs, he’d be perfect.” That’s pretty much the point here: people won’t be perfect, guaranteed. In the normal run of things, they never are, and in the case of therapy, they often will be worse. The children will be crazed to finally see a dog like the one they have at home and won’t understand why they can’t hug Maxi so hard that Maxi can’t breathe. Some seniors will sit quietly stroking Chief, but others will get a death grip on the sides of his head and kiss his lips before you can stop them.
For everyone’s sake, including your own, you don’t want Maxi and Chief to be dogs that just barely tolerate this kind of treatment. Those dogs may be “fine” (i.e., they don’t bite) the first time or two, but they might not be the third or fourth. Even if they don’t object, forcing them to tolerate this sort of behavior could be considered abusive. You need a dog who really, truly doesn’t care if he’s hugged or his tail is pulled. Those dogs are out there, but they are less common than many of us like to think.
Willie, for example, would be overstimulated in a room full of children, but might eventually be a great dog for a senior facility. Some dogs adore kids, but would be nervous around wheelchairs and walkers. Thus, your first job is to find out which program is a good fit for your dog. If you’re involved with a group like Delta Pet Partners or TDI, the organization will help you identify an appropriate venue after your dog has been certified.
Once you’re at your work site, your task is to present your dog to others and then back off enough to encourage connections. However, you need to stay alert, on watch for potentially inappropriate interactions. Most importantly, you need to be an expert at reading your dog. If I’ve heard “Oh, he’s fine,” about a stiff-bodied, closed-mouthed, wrinkled-brow dog once, I’ve heard it a gazillion times. Not long ago, a woman sent me a video of her and her dog doing AAT in a hospital setting. The children were in heaven, petting and stroking and chattering like starlings over the dog. The guardian was beaming, and raved to me about how much her dog loved the work. Except that’s not what her dog’s body language suggested. He looked patently miserable, with a stiff body, his mouth closed and his head turned away from the children. His human was so overwhelmed with oxytocin herself that she couldn’t see that her dog was extremely uncomfortable.
Job one, then, for guardians, is to become brilliant at interpreting visual signals of discomfort in their dog, and learning to act on them immediately. That’s not always so easy to do; many of us have seen a suspicious look on our dog’s face and dismissed it. “Oh, but he’s always loved coming here.” But maybe that was then, and this is now. Therapy work can be the highlight of a dog’s week, but it can also be stressful, and it’s common for dogs to enjoy it for a few years and then be ready for retirement.
What’s most important is to learn to read your dog objectively, and to do so every minute of every interaction. If you’re participating in AAT with your dog, you are the responsible member of a working team, and need to watch and evaluate the patient, the surroundings and your dog. If you don’t come home a little tired, you’re probably not doing your job.
Argh! This sounds like a lot. It is if you do it right, that’s true. However, many people say it’s the most rewarding thing they’ve ever done with their dog. I don’t want these cautions to discourage anyone from doing AAT or AAA with their dog. This can be important and wonderful work — good for you, good for your dog and good for people desperate for the same glow we get when we cuddle with our own dogs at night. Spreading the wealth is a beautiful thing — but it needs to be done with knowledge and foresight so that it’s a win/win/win for everyone. Let’s hear it for oxytocin all around!
News: Guest Posts
Being able to travel to amazing and interesting places is a real blessing in my life that I am grateful for every single day. I recently returned from a month in southern Africa… for me it was like returning home since I lived in South Africa for five years. My husband, Mike, is South African, and he works there most of the year, so my four year old daughter and I usually go at least once a year to see him and to see other family and friends.
This particular trip was not only to visit family though, I ended up spending about ten days visiting with other people and organizations who use “Conservation K9’s” for wildlife conservation. Wildlife is one of the greatest natural resources that Africa has, and tourism is a real economic boost as well as a good reason to protect the incredible diversity found there.
Take the cheetah, for example. Who doesn’t love cheetahs! They are gorgeous, athletic, and alluring creatures! But they are also in great danger. I was lucky enough to spend a week at the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) in Namibia, where I was able to spend time with cheetahs and the dogs that are helping them. The mission of CCF is stated as:
“To be the internationally recognized centre of excellence in the conservation of cheetahs and their ecosystems. CCF will work with all stakeholders to develop best practices in research, education, and land use to benefit all species, including people.”
In trying to accomplish this, CCF does many things. They rescue, raise, rehabilitate, and often release cheetahs when possible. The real importance of their work though is in trying to help local livestock farmers strike a harmonious balance with the cheetahs and other wildlife that share the habitat. One way they do this is by raising Livestock Guardian Dogs.
Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGD’s), such as the Anatolian Shepherds and Kangals that CCF breeds, are a very effective way to protect livestock where there are large predators. In Namibia, farmers can suffer losses from cheetahs and other large predators that still roam wild. CCF breeds these special dogs and gives them to farmers who need them so that cheetahs will not suffer the consequences.
I spent some time with a litter of four week old LGD puppies that were surrounded by CCF’s own herd of goats. The puppies are raised with livestock, and human attention and cuddling is minimized so that the dogs bond with the livestock rather than people. Once the dogs are ready they live full time with the herds they protect, and they love their job!
While at CCF I also got to meet four other special dogs, the cheetah scat detections dogs! These four dogs and their dedicated human team members spend their days in the field looking for cheetah scat, which is then processed by CCF’s in house genetics lab where so much information can be extracted from one sample. Cheetahs suffer from some genetic problems as a result of their declining populations, and the scat can also relay which individual it came from, what sex it is, stress levels, pregnancy, diet, etc.
These dogs can be very valuable because they speed up what can be a very time consuming process looking for a “needle in a haystack”, especially since cheetahs have such huge home ranges.
I had a great time at CCF meeting the dogs and many of the cheetahs that are non-releasable. Namibia is an amazing country, and I highly recommend it as a travel destination… and of course CCF is open to visitors and is an incredible experience!!
Towards the end of my Africa trip I traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa and attended a workshop dedicated to the use of detection dogs for wildlife conservation. It was here that I had the pleasure of meeting many wonderful people and dogs. I was finally able to meet two very special people in person that I had only conversed with via emails.
Rox Brummer from Green Dogs Conservation was a key participant in the workshop and had so much to share with all of us. Rox and her team are based in South Africa, and have done so much already with dogs including cheetah scat and kill detection as well as a bird control dog for an international airport in South Africa.
The other key speaker at the workshop was Megan Parker from Working Dogs for Conservation, based in Montana. Megan and her team have done much of the pioneering work using dogs for wildlife work. Their past projects span many continents and countries, and she had so much experience and wisdom to share with the group. I also got to meet one of Megan’s dogs, Pepin, a very handsome Belgian Malinois that has been trained to detect many different things in his working career.
This workshop proved an invaluable use of my time, as it was a very unique opportunity to pick the brains of several people who are the most knowledgeable and experienced in this unique field. I thank them all immensely for their time and dedication.
My trip was a success, both personally and professionally. Best of all I came home to happy and healthy dogs who had been so well cared for in my absence. There is no replacement for a great dog-sitter, and I have the best! Ranger was thrilled to see me again and ready to get to work. He is showing so much potential these days… I can’t wait for you to see him next month!
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