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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Trust The Dog

My wife and are among some of those sad people that allow our dogs in bed with us. Last night was no different; Squirrel was gathered at Carla’s feet and Gopher who typically sleeps on my feet I had pulled in close to me so that I could stroke him needing a little therapy myself. He had stretched himself along me and we were laying nose to nose sharing my pillow, and he knew I needed him to be there for comfort and did not fall asleep, but instead looked at me with those loving brown eyes.

I laid there with Gopher and dismissed my own difficulties in life soon afterward thinking about the things we have seen and lifted by the acts of kindness, generosity and tenderness he has allowed me to see on this visits. All dog owners and animal owners can attest to the comfort and well being their pet has allowed them, and I have done so as well. However as I have stated before my relationship with Gopher has always been different, yes I can glow about how he is a good boy and I am the proud father. I truly feel that he is not my dog, he belongs to a larger community, and I am privileged to be able to share his life. It surely sounds odd, but that is how I feel, I know he loves me ad shows me great loyalty and devotion, but he belongs to the community.

As I lay there looking into the depth of his eyes into a world I can only hypothesize about I thought about that and two experiences we have had, and the phrase “Trust the Dog”. This phrase is commonly uttered in advanced training and I have used it my self with my wife. As you advance this is to remind you that you have taught them the basics, and to do this you had to have constant vigilance, but now it is time to let the leash fall so to speak.

There are two cases now in therapy visits where I have failed at this in the moment, but upon reflection, knew I should have trusted him. Did he give me a look I missed or did not understand I am not sure, but I will keep looking for it as we continue this journey.

The first experience I talk about in detail and was on his first visit. There was a young girl who was nervous of the other dogs and Gopher noted this and did a cautious approach. It was an amazing experience and a great first visit and I did not know if I would ever see him duplicate. You may read more about that experience here: First Visit-A Cautious Approach

He would do something similar several weeks later. We were on our visit  in a group setting, I had been proud of his progress, and that with a small movement of an individual finger I could direct him to another child looking for pets. We arrived on this visit, signed in and went to our spot. I noted a few of our ‘regulars’ were already there waiting for us. Gopher came in and was wagging and selected to lay down first in front of a young child with whom he had visited with several times. He laughed and pet Gopher, after a few minutes I attempted to direct Gopher to some of the other kids so they could get some time with him and he refused. Oh my, Gopher what had I done, were you mad at me because we had not gone out to play chuck it as much recently and throwing a tantrum? Was this a day where my commands were not going to work? He was not doing anything wrong or harmful he was just laying there with the child and refused to move on to the next as he had done so many times before. Eventually we would have the other children gather around him and he was fine with this, but kept his focus centered on the child he had chosen first. He did not get up, stir, for the entire hour. Truly remarkable for a high energy dog whom I had not had the chance to exercise that day. He stayed there and was reluctant to leave at the appointed time. The child did not pet him the whole time, and sometimes merely rested his hand on Gophers chest. I still remember it and have always found it amazing to see how gentle he is and how small those hands look on his chest.

A week had transpired and it was time for us to return to the facility, and this time I made sure we had some more play time so we would not have a repeat performance of the preceding visit. We checked in and sat down in the appointed area, and once again a few of the ‘regulars’ were there. The child who Gopher had lavished with attention the preceding week was absent. I thought nothing of this as patients come and go all the time. A little ways into our visit the parents noted that Gopher was more attentive to all children this week than last, and my cheeks flushed with embarrassment. Then they said something odd, “I wonder if he knew?” This caught my attention, but it is not appropriate for the handler to probe and ask questions in this sensitive environment. So I kept my lips shut and did not ask the burning question, “Wonder if he knew what?” It did not take long for one of the parents who I have gotten to know somewhat over our visits to tell me, that the child who Gopher lavished so much attention on the previous week had passed away.

I couldn’t say anything besides I am ‘sorry to hear that’, as my mind was instantly flooded with emotions I did not understand. I had experienced a death before in this work and reported on it earlier, but again so soon hit me hard. We left that visit and I started to pontificate on what I had learned and Gopher’s behavior. Had he known that child was about to leave this world? Was that why he refused to move? How did he know, do we release a scent close to death that a canine nose can detect? Why was he not afraid if he had known? I had heard cases in hospice settings where a dog refused to enter a patients room they had been before in the final hours of life? I had also heard of the infamous “Death Cat” who is antisocial, but will lavish attention on those about to die, and has never been wrong, so now the facility contacts the family when they see the cat get up on a patient. Was he actually only angry with me and did not want to work for me? Questions that can only be a discussion as I am not sure I will ever know what happened that day. I do know that he provided comfort to a child who was in their last hours of life. I also learned that as competent as I feel I am at times I need to learn to ‘Trust the Dog’.

Have you experienced something like this? Please leave a comment and tell Gopher, Carla and I about it.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Gopher Goes To College

            It was Mom’s turn this time!  Gopher and I went on our first solo Therapy.  I have had the opportunity to watch Gopher work at various facilities with Chad as the handler and witnessed a lot of the stories that you read about in this blog but this was our first time by ourselves.  Chad and I train as a team so I was very involved in getting Gopher to the place he is now and I have enjoyed every minute of it, the frustrating and the rewarding.  It’s all an adventure and we do ours as a family. 
            You have probably read in various newspapers, how colleges, high schools, and grade schools are using therapy animals to relieve stress in the classroom.  I have not read up on any of the hard scientific research that proves or disproves this theory but by what I have seen it will at the very least put a smile on a face or two and everyone seems to truly appreciate the animal’s presence.  Our visit was to a local college library during finals week.  Which as a college graduate, I can attest at how stressful this part of my life could be.  We stood at the entrance to the library behind a make shift barrier and let those that chose to interact with the animals the opportunity to do so.  The barrier is simply there to protect those who don’t feel comfortable around dogs and we always try our best to be respectful of this.  The visit was pretty low key but we had quite a few visitors stop by to visit us and the other dogs that were available for petting.  One of my favorites was a young gentleman that was obviously in a hurry, stop in his tracks, turn and point right at Gopher.  He said “I want to pet that one”.  He stopped for a few minutes and gave Gopher some love and then was on his way.  Another older student came down the hall and looked like she was about in tears.  Her fist words were “I need therapy”.  She had seen a posting about us being there and had hurried over after she took her final which she was sure she had failed.  There were no favorites for her, she pet each one of them for a long time. 
            Gopher performed for me like a dream.  He makes it look easy but I know the journey we took with him.  From shark puppy to hard nosed adolescent to one of the best therapy dogs I have ever seen.  I swear I’m not biased!:)  I honestly don’t take much credit for it cause if he didn’t have the drive and the instinct to do the work the best trainers in the world couldn’t have gotten him there.  He loves what he does and so do we.  We plan on posting our stories here for a very long time!   

Friday, July 1, 2011

Gopher is in the Press!

Well he is in the limited press that is. The Bi-annual newsletter, Interactions, written and distributed by the Delta Society came out this week and an article about Gopher appears on page 20. For those who have read this full blog you will recognize this story. To see the article go to the link below.

Gopher on Page 20 of 'Interactions"!