work of dogs
News: Guest Posts
Plus, some serious off-leash challenges for Caleb
This is my favorite time of year; I love the changing of the season and how it changes our activities. The temperature drops, the leaves change colors and soup becomes a staple on the dinner table. The one negative I can find is the shorter day. It’s an adjustment for all of us. We go from weekends spent on the water to weekends hiking the amazing central Oregon wilderness, and as always Caleb partakes in the fun. While he gets plenty of exposure to the public and new experiences we try to balance all of this with fun activities. These not only build trust but make working more fun and rewarding.
With no shortage of places to explore, we’ve been spending a lot of time up in the mountains taking advantage of the less crowded trails before the snowpack arrives. Caleb clearly enjoys the change of pace and scenery. Some of the toughest challenges we face on our hikes are off-leash dogs. I will be the first to admit Noah, our pet dog never walked on a leash. He was trained to respond to verbal commands and could be counted on to listen no matter the circumstance. However, when we were approaching or approached by any dog we’d but him on a leash for the safety of everyone.
It’s a bit different with Caleb; he’s not allowed off leash in areas that are not fenced and more often than not we can count on an off-leash dog encounter no matter where we go. These provide us with two different challenges. The first being a good distraction exercise for Caleb to work through. Ignoring an off-leash dog can be tough even for the most reliable dog, so we work some training into our fun hikes.
The second and more concerning for all of us is the unknown and in some cases aggressive off-leash dogs. This can be particularly detrimental to a Guide Dog puppy and end a working career before it even starts. One negative experience can cause unrecoverable damage that stresses out a dog enough that he cannot regain the focus to work successfully. Dog attacks are the number one reason for early or sudden retirement of working Guide Dogs. Luckily, I can simply pick up Caleb and move away from any off-leash dog approaching us in a dominant or aggressive posture. Caleb still thinks he’s a lap dog and doesn’t mind a little pick-me-up now and again. As long as our adventure continues he’s a happy.
Playing and being a family member are just as important in Caleb’s training as socialization and public outings. At home, just like any pet dog, Caleb enjoys playing with toys, napping on any number of beds around the house and following our every move. He sleeps in our room and loves racing around the backyard with a toy in his mouth. It’s not all work for this Guide Dog puppy; we make sure to have plenty of fun. One of my favorite games to play with Caleb is tug. He loves it and when he does he gets quite animated and makes the strangest noises. We call him the Wookie because he sounds exactly like Chewbacca from Star Wars. It is one of the most hilarious traits about Caleb, and I hope his future partner finds it as funny as we do.
More and more we are preparing ourselves for Caleb’s recall. This week marked his final evaluation by our community field representative from Guide Dogs for the Blind. We spent time reviewing Caleb’s monthly reports and discussing all of the different things we’ve exposed him to. He’s right where he should be in training. His obedience is spot on, he’s been exposed to all sorts of people, places and things, all of which he takes in stride. He’s confident but cautious, at the end of the meeting it was determined Caleb’s got a few more months with us before his recall. Since he’s a little immature we’ll get to keep him for a bit longer than the average pup. Finally, I found the silver lining of those Golden Retriever genes, and am thankful for some extra time with this little pup of whom I’ve grown so fond.
Next month, Caleb and I will have the honor of speaking at the Guide Dogs for the Blind Festive Holiday Luncheon in San Francisco, stay tuned.
News: Guest Posts
Underweight and injured St. Bernard chases down burglar
A Saint Bernard rescued from an Ohio animal shelter turned into a crime-fighting hero less than six hours after he arrived at his new home.
The 114-pound Hercules—still recovering from injuries he received in a coyote attack—stopped a burglar trying to break into the home of his rescuers, Lee and Elizabeth Littler of Hillsboro, Ohio.
The crime-fighting canine sprang into action around 11:45 pm on November 9.
“My husband was letting Hercules out the back door when he heard him start to growl,” Elizabeth Littler told The Bark. “He had not done that before. Hercules then jumped through the screen door and leaped across our porch. That’s when my husband saw a guy’s head coming up our back stairwell.”
Hercules chased the burglar across the couple’s backyard and to their four-foot fence. “He got a bite out of the guy’s leg,” Elizabeth said of the burglar, who had already cut the phone and cable line to their house. “He ripped his pants and tried to tug him down. But the guy got away.”
Hillsboro Police Chief Nicholas Thompson applauded Hercules and his heroic efforts. “I think it’s great for him to take ownership of that home so quickly,” he said. “He’d only been with the family about six hours.”
The Littler’s originally planned to keep Hercules until he recovered from his injuries. “He was attacked by coyotes and some hunters found him in the woods,” Elizabeth said. “They thought he was dead until he lifted up his head. They took him to a vet, who patched him up. He then went to the Humane Society.”
Littler’s husband found Hercules by accident. “We had a friend who lost a Terrier and my husband went to the pound to look for him,” she said. “He saw Hercules there and learned he didn’t have much longer to live; he was days from being euthanized. My husband said we have to help him.
“Our original plan was to nurse him back to health and then give him to a rescue group or find him a good home,” she said of Hercules, who is still about 100-pounds underweight. “But now, he’s found a permanent home.”
Her husband echoed those sentiments in an interview with ABC news. “To have adopted a dog six hours before the incident and have him already defending you with that resolve, It’s amazing. If you show care and affection to your animals, they will return it.”
To return the favor to Hercules—and help save other dogs—the young couple now plans to start their own animal rescue group.
“All our other pets (dogs, cats, and an iguana) are rescues,” Elizabeth said. “We’re all for encouraging people to adopt.”
They’ve already set up a Facebook page about Hercules and said more information about their rescue group will be posted in the next few days.
Meanwhile, Hillsboro police continue to search for the burglar that Hercules chased away. Chief Thompson, however, said they have no new leads in the case.
“I only wish that he (Hercules) would have been able to hold on to the guy long enough for my officers to arrive,” he said. “We’ve had several other calls in that neighborhood of prowlers in the late evening hours. There’s no doubt in my mind that was the same guy doing some of the other prowling.”
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
A Golden Retriever gives high schooler the chance to run
Guide dogs have a special and important job. Not only do they help people with their day-to-day tasks, these working dogs give their people the gift of independence.
As a fellow runner, I was inspired by the story of Sami Stoner, the first high school athlete in Ohio to compete with a guide dog.
Sami began running on her school's cross-country team in eighth grade, but by the end of that year, she was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, which left her legally blind.
In order for Sami to run on the junior varsity cross-country team, one of her friends, Hannah Ticoras, initially ran alongside her in races. But
Now, Chloe the Golden Retriever has picked up where Hannah left off and Sami continues to run in competitions with Chloe by her side. The guide dog watches out for roots and finds the clearest path for Sami to run.
For Sami, running with Chloe isn't about winning. In fact, she isn't allowed to place at track meets. For her, it's about being able to do something she loves and showing that having a disability isn't the end of the world. And for that, Sami is thankful for her loyal guide dog, Chloe.
News: Guest Posts
A near-accident and a broken foot lead to a career change for Harper
My third Seeing Eye dog is probably the smartest one I’ve ever worked with. Harper learned early on that drivers aren’t looking out for us. He knows we could get hurt out there. So he refuses to lead me far from home.
Harper wasn’t always this way. When we went out with our instructor during training last December, Seeing Eye staff were out and about in vehicles, intentionally cutting in front of us to simulate the behavior of drivers. Harper was excellent at these “traffic checks,” pulling me away from harm’s way, refusing to step into the street if he saw a vehicle coming towards us.
Back home last spring, one of Harper’s heroic traffic checks saved both our lives. He stopped at a busy intersection, I listened, heard the traffic going straight at our parallel, and commanded “forward!”
Harper was watching, though. He pulled us away from a turning vehicle with such force that I fell backward, cracking the back of my head on the concrete. The woman driving the vehicle told me later that she hadn't seen us.
After that, Harper started showing fear around traffic. A Seeing Eye instructor came out to give me tips on clicker training. Harper started to improve.
And then I broke my foot.
We held onto the hope that time off work might help Harper get his mojo back. That hope was lost after my foot healed. Before, a clicker and a treat would get him going, now Harper—a Labrador Retriever, mind you—is no longer motivated by treats.
The Seeing Eye sent a second instructor, and then a third. Together we determined city life has become too much for Harper. He’ll be moving in with friends in a leafy suburb of Chicago later this month, and then I’ll return to the Seeing Eye after Thanksgiving to be matched with a new partner.
I do not think of my gentle, sweet two-year-old yellow Lab as a failure. John Keane, manager of Instruction and Training at the Seeing Eye, agrees. “Look at it this way,” he told me. “Harper took a bullet for you, and for that, he gets an early retirement.”
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Company also to give charitable donation
When 9-year-old Alison Ainsworth, who is autistic, and her service dog Levi were kicked out of an Edmonton Winners store the first time, the store responded with a $25 gift card. Asking her to leave because of her dog was against company policy. When the girl and her dog returned to the store months later to use that gift card, they were again told to get out.
This time, the store’s response was much bigger. Executives of the retail chain apologized and promised to educate each employee about the company policy, which is to allow service dogs into all of their stores. They also offered to donate $10,000 to a charity of Ainsworth’s choosing. Appropriately enough, the money will go towards training a service dog for another autistic child in Alberta.
The Ainsworths will not pursue a human rights complaint against the company as originally planned and hope that the incident and associated publicity will be beneficial in affecting attitudes about service dogs in the community.
News: Guest Posts
House passes pilot for training dogs, including shelter pups
We’ve been tracking the progress of efforts to pair service dogs with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other post-deployment mental health conditions. We’ve cheered funding, training initiatives and research into the benefits. Slowly but surely the idea that dogs can provide major benefits to veterans is gaining traction in Washington.
Last week, the enterprise got a serious boost, when the House unanimously passed veterans’ health care legislation that included the Veterans Dog Training Therapy Act (H.R. 198). If passed by the Senate and signed into law by President Obama, the legislation will create a pilot program for training dogs as service dogs to assist veterans with disabilities.
“As a veteran, and an American, I am thrilled that this legislation has passed the House,” said Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., a Marine combat veteran who introduced the bill. “I urge my colleagues in the Senate to pass it without delay, so that it can be signed into law and allow us to begin providing assistance to our returning veterans.”
Already studies have demonstrated that a service dog can reduce symptoms for veterans suffering from PTSD. Caring for a pet can help reduce stress, depression and suicide rates. Service dogs can also help veterans by doing things like waking them from terrifying nightmares and alerting to signs of and helping ward off panic attacks.
Even better, the legislation directs the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to “consider dogs residing in animal shelters or foster homes for participation in the program.” Great news for homeless dogs and smart from a budget perspective, since purpose-bred dogs can cost as much as $50,000 each, according the Humane Society Legislative Fund.
OK Senate, now it’s your turn to do the right thing by veterans and dogs.
News: Guest Posts
The puppy-raising phase is coming to an end
This afternoon Caleb and I returned home from a five-day trip to San Francisco, where I learned two of his littermates had been career-changed. Since only about 50 percent of puppies in training make it as working guide dogs this is not unheard of, but after another successful travel experience with my stoic little dude it stung just a little. Luckily, Caleb remains on track. We have yet to encounter a situation he cannot handle. He is a willing participant in whatever activity we are headed for. Tail wagging and feet prancing, he’s very good at showcasing those Golden Retriever traits.
We spent a few days in San Francisco, which is a great experience for this little country bumpkin. Caleb has become such a seasoned traveler I believe he absolutely knows exactly what’s going on when I begin to pack my bag and his food. Thinking back to the little chuck of puppy I picked up last winter, I am very proud of how far Caleb has come. Watching him navigate slipping under the seats on a plane and traversing through San Francisco Airport is really amazing. He’s ready to face whatever path he chooses. He is confident and smart and loves to please, I think he’ll make a wonderful guide dog and partner for someone.
From San Fran, we made our way to Napa for a few nights to visit some friends and attend the Guide Dogs for the Blind Canine Heroes Wine Gala. Guide Dogs for the Blind supports and funds the veterinary care for all program dogs for the duration of their careers. The funding will support everything from urgent-care treatments and life-threatening conditions, to annual exams including vaccinations and lab work.
The evening included amazing wine and food from local restaurants, a silent auction, a spirited live auction and lots of dogs! Caleb was more than willing to pose for photos and work the crowd. I managed to win the raffle drawing for 13 magnums of wine but most importantly nearly $500,000 was raised to ensure Guide Dogs for the Blind can provide the best veterinary care to their clients free of charge.
Even with all the excitement and Caleb’s successes, I think we’ve reached the point I should address the white elephant that’s been in the background of this series since the start, the reality of giving Caleb up, which is only growing closer with each passing day. I am hoping we’ll have him for another 3 to 4 months but we are starting to prepare for his recall, knowing it’s only a matter of time.
He’s the first puppy we’ve had who didn’t meet Noah, my yellow Lab companion of nearly 14 years. I think this worked in his favor as we refer to him as our clean slate pup. Our previous guide dog puppy-in-training, Arden, was with us when Noah passed away and the entire year was hard for all of us. I still miss my Noah every day but my heart aches less.
Caleb is with us—and more specifically, me—all the time; I am his person. He will go anywhere and do anything for me. Over the last year, we’ve built an amazing bond and trust that we’ll always have no matter what his future holds. He may go weeks, months or years without seeing me but his reaction will be the same and the reunions will be joyful no matter how long we’ve been apart.
I honestly don’t think any of my pups spend their days pining for me. All of them are with their soul mates and where they are meant to be. I am the awesome aunt who brings special presents and treats. From day one, I remind myself eventually we’ll have to say goodbye but as recent as last night I find myself tearing up at the prospect. It never gets easier, in fact, sometimes I think it gets harder with each dog.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Picture a mountain rescue dog, and the traditional image is a faithful St. Bernard plodding valiantly into a blizzard to bring relief and a welcome tot of brandy to avalanched skiers and stormbound winter travellers.
But the fact is, St. Bernards have had only limited employment as rescue dogs. Breeds such as German Shepherds, Border Collies and Golden Retrievers are the dogs of choice for mountain rescue teams.
So it was that I found myself looking up into the friendly, panting face of Lily, a Golden Retriever cross who had come to rescue me from an “avalanche” on the slopes of Fernie Alpine Resort in British Columbia.
I’d been buried in the snow as part of an exercise for the resort’s ski patrol team, and it was Lily’s task as one of the team’s avalanche rescue dogs to both find me and dig me out as fast as possible.
In a real rescue situation, an avalanched skier would be grateful to have a trained dog such as Lily on hand. An avalanche dog can search one hectare (2.5 acres) in approximately 30 minutes, while 20 humans using avalanche probes would take around four hours to cover an equivalent area.
The speed with which an “avy dog” locates an avalanche victim is absolutely vital, since around 90 percent of avalanche victims will survive if recovered in the first 15 minutes after burial, provided they haven’t suffered fatal trauma. This drops to 30 percent after a half-hour and just 10 percent after two hours.
The dog searches for “pools” of human scent — if still conscious, the buried victim will give off especially strong scent, as he is highly likely to be panicking and even sweating despite the cold. The odor rises up through the snowpack before being carried away on the breeze, and when a dog finds a potential scent, she’ll bury her snout and head into the snow to try to locate it more accurately. If the scent intensifies, the dog will start to dig, and human rescuers will come along and assist with shovels; if the scent becomes weaker, the dog will work outward from the area to try to locate a stronger scent.
As Lily’s handler, Kirk Gutzman, told me before the exercise, “The tricky part as a handler is to be able to recognize if your dog is interested in a spot because there’s someone buried beneath it, or has just found a surface scent — for instance, where a fellow rescuer may have fallen over and put some human scent on the snow surface.”
Kirsty Morris, a friend I was skiing with while in Fernie, had hung around to watch the free show. She told me what had been happening on the surface as I tried to keep warm in a snow hole dug especially for the exercise.
Lily had been brought to the scene of the “avalanche” at high speed on Kirk’s snowmobile, and as soon as it stopped, “she jumped off, sniffed the air for a few seconds and then headed almost straight toward where you were buried,” said Kirsty. “After a bit of sniffing around in the general area of the snowhole, she then homed in on you and started digging — the whole thing took less than a minute.”
Happy as I am to see her, Lily isn’t really that interested in me — it’s the sweater that I’ve taken down the hole with me that she’s after, and the game of tug-of-war we have with it as a reward for her efforts.
Lily has learned to track the scent of the human clutching the sweater, since in a real-life avalanche she would be searching for similar odors given off by a buried victim. She will do a practice rescue like this twice a week throughout the winter.
It was after seeing an avalanche rescue dog in action at Fernie that Kirk was encouraged to get into “avy dog” work. “The first successful avalanche dog rescue in Canada took place here in Fernie in 2000, when a buried skier was dug out alive thanks largely to the work of the dog,” says Kirk. “I was a member of the ski patrol team at the time. I got Lily a couple of years later with the intention of working her as an avy dog, and at two months old she began her training.”
Kirk went on to explain that for puppies, all the training is based on praise — obedience training doesn’t begin until a dog is a year old. When Lily was eight months, she and Kirk attended a weekend assessment course with the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA), where trainers from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police assessed dogs for their suitability.
Lily was deemed to have the right stuff, so there followed more training and eventually a weeklong winter course involving everything from recognizing human scents to learning to ride on ski lifts and snowmobiles and in helicopters.
Lily and Kirk successfully completed the works to become a “team in training” for a full year, followed by another weeklong winter course, which they passed to become a fully certified avalanche rescue dog team and validated members of CARDA. “So as you can see, it’s actually taken us quite a long time to come and rescue you!” laughed Kirk.
During the ski season, Fernie’s rescue dogs travel to work with their owners bright and early every morning, hitting the slopes well before the first skiers of the day arrive. Their kennels sit on the mountain at an elevation of over 6,000 feet. Ready to go into instant action, they will always be called out to any avalanche on the ski hill, irrespective of whether anyone is thought to have been buried or not.
Naturally enough, Fernie’s avalanche dogs are a popular feature of the local ski scene and receive a lot of attention when they’re on duty — after all, it’s not every day you see a dog riding along on a ski lift. They’re discouraged by their handlers from letting this go to their heads, though, because when all’s said and done, the avy dogs, unlike most of the people they meet every day, are in the resort to do a job. Their work is becoming more and more important as increasing numbers of skiers and boarders head away from groomed trails and “out of bounds” into potential avalanche terrain.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Teaching inmates the dog canon.
One long, unseasonably warm fall, I teach a class called “Man’s Best Friend” every af ternoon in the prison library. We read dog stories as a way to explore the relationship between humans and dogs; my hope is that it will help the inmates take the next step and think about how they connect with their own emotions. On sunny days, I open the small, barred window so we can smell the soft, autumnal air and hear the shouts and laughter of inmates in the exercise yard.
I know that some of my students would rather be out there shooting hoops, walking laps or relaxing on benches instead of clustered around library tables reading books with me. But they are here because they love dogs. Reading about them cannot substitute for being with them, but it is the best we can do. Many have left pets on the outside and pine for them. This devoted group attends what’s become known around the facility as “Dog Class.”
One day, I am sitting in the library supply closet, which I have converted into an office with just enough room for my computer, a table to put it on and a rolling chair. My phone sits on an upended box, and there is no ventilation. I’m doing some last-minute preparation when Paul, one of my students, comes to the closet door and drops a sheet of paper on the edge of my computer table. “Here, I wrote this about my dog. You can have it.” He sits down at a table in the reading area to wait for class to begin.
It is a poem about Willy, his failing old Boxer back home. In the poem, he calls him “my boy” and muses about what it will be like when Willy dies. I read it and fight the urge to cry. Paul cannot see me, but I call out in a tight voice, “Paul, this is very good. A real tearjerker. Thank you for letting me read it.”
A moment later, Larry, my new library assistant, comes over with a thick book of poems and says, “If you like sad poems, try the one on page 89.” Larry functions on the border of things, never entering into a conversation unless invited. He has only recently begun opening up by suggesting titles of books he’d like me to order. A week earlier, he asked for anything by D.H. Lawrence or Jane Austen.
The poem is “A Dog’s Death,” by John Updike. I am quickly reduced to tears. “Larry, that is really something,” I say thickly. “Show Paul; he might want to read it too.” He takes the book and sets it in front of Paul, who hunches over it intently. When I walk into the reading area, Paul is wiping tears from his face.
“Should we read this one in class sometime?” I ask. “And yours Paul, can I make copies and pass them around for the guys to read?” He nods okay, still choked up by Updike’s poem.
In this class, we read books about lost dogs, sled dogs, farm dogs and dogs of the American frontier. We scan articles about doggie issues, which I clip from newspapers. We read funny poems and letters to editors that point fingers at dog abusers, and discuss the pros and cons of leash laws. I pass out cartoons and thoughtful quotes related to canines, and invite people who work with dogs to visit our class. Each brings along a real live dog.
In a high-security prison, where touch is forbidden, a tail-wagging visitor can make even the most sullen inmate drop his war face and reach out to make contact. The stories we read in class are vehicles to explore emotional connection and compassion, but dog visitors are the carrots that reel inmates into the class. And because this is an English class, I make them think about vocabulary, too, often putting lists of tricky words from the reading on the whiteboard to discuss.
Harold was just let out of The Hole. He’d been sent there for making hooch in his cell. I ask him to use vivisection in a sentence. He stares at me from behind his dark glasses and says, “I hate vivisection.”
“Can you tell me more, Harold?” I say. “That simple sentence doesn’t give us any clue about what the word means.”
“Okay. Dogs hate vivisection and I like dogs, so I hate it too,” he offers. Luis, a good-looking Latino who sold heroin on the street, volunteers to use chauvinistic and trundle in a sentence. In his heavy accent, he says, “I am chauvinistic about my home of Puerto Rico. I would like to trundle back there.”
Not to be outdone, Stanley, who sits next to Luis, adds, “They served us bad chow today in a perfunctory manner.”
Stanley obsesses about chow, and complains daily about taste, content and portion size. A barrel-shaped man in his late 50s, he is short, grizzled and universally recognized among staff and inmates as a malcontent. Most inmates have a nickname, and Stanley has three: Stumpy, Grumpy and Toad.
Today, we are finishing a book about a man’s team of sled dogs and his love for his favorite lead dog, who is slowing down with age. We talk about foreshadowing, and how the discussion of her decline is most likely leading to the part about her death. Luis read ahead the night before, and announces matter-of-factly, “I already know what happens. The dog dies.”
“Shit, now you ruined it for the rest of us,” says Stanley. “I hate that. Why should we even bother to finish it?”
“Nah, let’s just read it,” says Ralph, a large, loud lumberjack of a man who dislikes Stanley. “Don’t listen to him,” he says, pointing to Stanley. “Who cares what the goddamn ending is, anyway? It’s a good story.”
It is my practice to do a lot of the reading aloud, and I choose to push through to the end of the book today so we can start Old Yeller tomorrow. They follow along in their own copies, and it is dead quiet as they listen, except for the occasional shouts that float in the window from the yard.
But no one hears them because we are in Minnesota, where it is white cold. We see the old sled dog as she stands in a snowy field at the spot where her owner used to put her in harness. The bitter wind whips her coat as she waits patiently for him to come. But her sledpulling days are over and the dog team is long gone. Her human walks out to the field to gently urge her back in the warm house. In the swirling snow, she leans against his leg and stares ahead at where the old sled trails used to be. My voice cracks. I know where this story is going. I stumble on for a few more sentences, then put the book down.
“I can’t read any more. Who wants to continue where I left off?” The men stare at me in silence. We hear the muffled voices from the yard through the window. Someone curses, followed by a loud guffaw. “I’ll try,” says Stanley gruffly. The man they call Grumpy lowers half-moon reading glasses onto his nose and begins He gets through one page before his gravel voice quavers. He puts the book down and takes off the glasses to wipe his eyes. “That’s it for me. I can’t finish it,” he says. “Somebody else take over.”
“I’ll do it,” says Paul quietly. The paperback book shakes in his hand as he brings us to the sad end that we knew was coming but hoped would not make us feel so bad. He gets through it just fine, but his eyes are red, and there is an awkward silence when he closes the book. They look around at one another and at me, wondering who will say something to break the uncomfortable moment.
Loud Ralph points at me. “Lookit you,” he says. “You’re all pink and weteyed.” They stare, relieved to focus on me instead of their feelings. “And your neck has red splotches,” he adds. They snicker, and examine my eyes and my neck and my weakness instead of their connection to the story.
“Thank you for pointing that out, Ralph,” I say. “But get used to it. I always cry over sad animal stories. And when we get to Old Yeller, you may be the one with the splotchy neck.”
I walk to the filing cabinet where there’s a fat roll of toilet paper for guys who need to blow their noses, and unwind a few sheets for myself. “Who wants a tissue?”
“I’ll take some of that,” says Paul.
“Yeah, gimme some too,” demands Stanley. “But make sure you give me enough. This state toilet paper is flimsy crap.” The three of us blow our noses and I hear a couple of secretive sniffs around the room.
“Tomorrow we start Old Yeller,” I say. “But I think we’ve had enough for today. Why don’t you all go out to the yard and get some fresh air.” They leave, and when I am alone, I blow my nose again, loudly and in private.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Therapy dog unlocks a door into a patient’s mind
Rikki is a female golden retriever rescued from the f loodwaters outside New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Together, she and I are one of the animal-therapy teams affiliated with Companions for Therapy, a Tallahassee, Fla.-based organization that provides animal- therapy services to retirement homes, hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, hospice, child dependency and criminal courts, and schools.
We were introduced to the man I’ll call “Arnold” during a regular visit to the geriatric schizophrenic ward of one of the psychiatric hospitals we visit. As I always do, I began by asking the clients if they would like to meet my dog. Arnold, deaf and mute, sat with a vacant gaze, flanked by his interpreter and his therapist. He waved us off as quickly as his interpreter signed my greeting, and we moved on to the next person. After a few minutes of positive interactions with four other residents, we moved back to see if Arnold might have changed his mind. He hadn’t, and again dismissively waved us off.
After making the rounds of the room again, Rikki pulled me over to Arnold for a third time, but even as we approached him, his complete lack of interest was plain. I quietly told Rikki that we should leave him alone and concentrate on others who were enjoying her company.
When Rikki pulled me toward him a fourth time, I led her over to the interpreter and said, “Forgive me, but my dog really seems to think that your client would like to meet her. Would you mind asking him just one more time?” I’ve worked with my partner long enough to know that she knows much more than I do about who really needs her, and why.
As the interpreter signed our request, Rikki lay down at Arnold’s feet and looked straight up into his eyes. Arnold’s arm began flailing around as though he was about to have a seizure. I knelt down beside Rikki and slipped my finger inside her collar, just in case I needed to pull her back. I expected her to tense up, but instead, her muscles relaxed and her mouth opened in an expectant smile.
As I watched, a kaleidoscope of expressions crossed Arnold’s face; then for a moment, his eyes rolled far back in his head. Suddenly, he burst into a huge smile and his eyes focused on Rikki as though he’d never seen her before. He leaned over and threw his arms around her neck, moaning as he buried his head in her fur. Instead of stiffening up, Rikki relaxed and leaned forward into him, bringing herself even closer. Arnold began softly weeping and rocking back and forth. Time seemed to stop.
Then, just as quickly as he had begun, Arnold released Rikki, sat upright and looked straight ahead with a vacant stare, ignoring us. I had no idea what had happened, but Rikki seemed to know that our visit was over, and we thanked everyone and left the room.
Arnold’s therapist followed us out into the hall, where he told me that Arnold suffered from multiple personality disorder; the therapist had identified nine distinct personalities over the 12 years he had been treating him. He told me that Arnold’s dominant personality, which was aloof and antisocial, controlled the others and precluded them from emerging except occasionally, and then only for a short time.
He and the other therapists had worked to encourage one of Arnold’s other, more sociable personalities to emerge long enough for them to make contact. “Your dog did in a few minutes what I haven’t been able to do in 12 years. She connected with one of his personalities who wanted to deal with the outside world in a positive manner,” he said.
He admitted that he’d heard of animal therapy but had never really believed it would be of any benefit to his practice. Now, he didn’t know what to think. I didn’t, either. I couldn’t even imagine how difficult it must be to treat a person with Arnold’s disorder, which kept him in solitary confinement in his own body. The therapist asked if we could return the following week and focus strictly on Arnold, and I readily agreed.
When we arrived, we saw several people gathered around Arnold, who was sitting in his chair. I suddenly realized that this was going to be a bigger deal than I’d imagined. This time, there were other therapists and physicians in attendance, including the hospital’s chief medical director. My stomach went into a knot as I realized that we were there to prove ourselves to a “show me” crowd. I tried not to telegraph my nervousness to Rikki, but she seemed more than eager to meet everyone and charm them into petting her. Luckily, my therapy dog calmed me down.
Would this work? Since I had no idea how it happened the first time, what reason did I have to think that Rikki would be able to connect with Arnold again? Her demeanor was so focused and positive, however, that I began to relax. I remembered that my confidence in her had been proven through hundreds of other interactions. She would do what needed to be done.
As during our previous visit, Arnold was not interested at first. We spent an hour with him, and during that time, Rikki stayed focused and within petting distance. It didn’t take long for “Earl” (the name given to the personality who wanted to pet Rikki) to emerge, though his arrival wasn’t as physically dramatic as it had been in our first encounter.
As the visit continued, we “saw” six distinct personalities, including one who did not want to pet Rikki but was content to watch me pet her and ask questions about her through his interpreter. This in itself stunned the therapists, as Arnold had apparently never before taken note of a visitor, much less asked questions.
When one of Arnold’s personalities was petting or treating Rikki (he began taking baby carrots from me and giving them to her, even letting me show him how to have her sit and shake hands) and another personality who did not want the dog around began to overtake his persona, he would literally wave his arm in the air, as though shooing away a giant bug. I hardly knew what to do, other than to keep Rikki close and make sure he could touch her when he needed to. She seemed to know what to do — when to move in, when to engage with him, when to leave him alone.
I’ll always remember the moments she extended her head and smiled as he gently stroked her ears and made quiet sounds of contentment. As I looked around at the faces of the others, I realized that I wasn’t the only one who sensed just how special those moments were.
Arnold eventually relaxed enough while petting Rikki that the therapists were able to have brief interludes of conversation with him through his interpreter. I don’t know which was more fascinating: watching the interaction between Arnold and Rikki and Arnold and the therapists, or listening to the sidebar conversations between the therapists.
When we left, Arnold and the therapists walked us to our car, and every one of them — including Arnold, through his interpreter — thanked me for bringing her. I could barely reply. I could only thank them for giving my special dog and me a chance to help.
On the drive home, I looked in the rearview mirror and saw that Rikki had fallen into a deep sleep.
The next time we saw Arnold, he had a notepad and was communicating with his therapist by written word as well as through his interpreter. I thought for sure he would recognize us as we walked by, but his focus stayed on his therapist. And I just knew that Rikki would be drawn to him as she was before, since their previous connections had been so profound.
But neither of them was particularly interested in the other, and after my confusion (and, frankly, disappointment) had subsided, it finally dawned on me: he didn’t need her anymore, and she knew it. He had desperately needed some way to get around his dominant, isolated personality, someone who could provide a key to unlock the door between the “real” Arnold and the rest of us. Rikki sensed that, and knew how to be the key. Once the door was unlocked, the professionals were able to begin connecting with Arnold and treating him in more conventional ways.
So often, our animals provide exactly the right link or motivation, one that can’t otherwise be made with someone in physical or emotional pain or distress. I see it all the time, in so many of our therapy visits. Rikki is a special dog, but she’s not unique.
The Aborigines have a saying: “Dogs make us human.” I couldn’t agree more.
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