Sunday, March 27, 2011

Getting Beyond "We'll Never Own Another Dog"

When, at age forty, I married the perfect man, his household included two young kids and mine included two cats and a dog.  It was a tossup which caused more angst.  While I struggled to grow into the parental role I never thought I wanted, John became caretaker to a timid, anxious, sweet and loving former puppy mill puppy.  His work as a composer, musician and music teacher allows him to work from his home studio until after noon.  Mine as a teacher demands that I am out of the house often ten hours a day.  That meant that John was the responsible parent who walked the dog, kept the vet appointments, interrupted his work to let her out, and generally saw chunks of composing time eaten up in canine maintenance.  When she died at the age of thirteen, we agreed that our dog days were behind us.  And for a couple years, the choice felt like the right one.

One Saturday, John and I went out to breakfast at Parker-Lusseau, our favorite little French bakery.  As we were leaving, my sweetheart exclaimed, in a disbelieving tone, "Honey!"  

And I said, "What?"  

And he said, "Honey!  Look down."  

So I did and saw nothing but my shoes.  

"Honey!" he said again, "I can't believe you, of all people, missed it.  Look there!"  And he pointed to a very small sheep at the end of a man's leash.  

Okay, it wasn't really a sheep, it was a dog, but it did look like a little lamb.  We patted it and I have never felt a softer dog.  It was gentle and calm and lovely.  What kind of dog is this? we asked the man, and he spoke the magic words: a Bedlington Terrier.  

On our way to the car, my thoughtful husband, who knows me so very well, put his arm around me and murmured, "You know, sweetheart, if you really want to get another dog, I think we could make it work.  I just wish you could take it to school every day so that it wouldn't have to be alone so much."  

"You mean as a therapy dog?"

"Why not?"

In fact, I contemplated, that could be a really wonderful idea.  I am the dean of students at an independent school that serves brilliant, ambitious, creative adolescents from all socio-economic levels.  Most of what I do involves counseling teenagers who are stressed out by uproars at home, by social or academic upheavals at school, or simply by the trials of adolescence.  If a student has a meltdown she or he will end up in my office.  A therapy dog could provide a point of focus and maybe even comfort for upset students who are trying to tell me about their situations.  What's better for stress than the unconditional love of a dog?  It could be helpful for students and teachers both.  And one of my concerns has always been how to break the perceived barrier of my office door--how can I make it more comfortable for a student simply to drop by and say hi?  A dog would be an easy draw.  I wondered what the school would say to the idea.

So, in my obsessive way, I spent six hours the next day researching Bedlington Terriers.  Everything I learned about them encouraged me.  They're gentle, mellow, even tempered, smart, eager to please, people oriented, agile, confident, and help little old ladies across the street.  Okay, maybe not the last one.  I sent inquiries off to two members of the Bedlington Society of America who indicated they had puppies available.

On Monday, I took my idea to our head of school.  He looked at me with his, "What in the world will you surprise me with next?" look, one I've gotten pretty used to over the years.  Before he could respond, we were interrupted and never had the opportunity to return to the topic.  That night, I sent him an email explaining more about what I had in mind, along with pictures of grown-up Bedlingtons.  The next morning he replied saying that he actually loved the idea, was a big fan of therapy dog programs, but that we really needed to involve our business manager to ask about the insurance ramifications and other issues.

Now, the thing you need to know about our business manager is that she has mastered the use of the word NO.  As a friend of mine says, she's exactly the kind of person you want in a business manager.  She's also a warm, caring individual who loves the school fiercely.  Before I talked with her, I wanted to have my case pretty airtight.  The next day I happened to be talking with the school's lawyer about a different issue when I had a flash of inspiration.  If I asked our lawyer about a dog and she told me it could never fly, then I would just let it go and move on.  But, if she said yes, her word carries a lot of weight with our business manager which might be exactly the extra ammunition I needed.  Not only did she not say no, she adored the idea.  This is a down-to-earth, practical woman and she was going gaga about the benefits of a therapy dog for our students.  She was quite familiar with Bedlingtons, knew their reputation for looking like little lambs, knew they are hypoallergenic.  

Emboldened, I went to the business manager and as I asked her to investigate what the insurance ramifications might be, I dropped into the discussion the fact that both the head of school and our lawyer were completely behind the idea.  She was cautiously intrigued by the possibilities of a therapy dog, but hesitated to commit herself until she had spoken with our insurance agent.  Within the hour, she called me, astonished, to report the agent's response: "What a terrific idea!"  Still, he needed several pieces of information from me to present to the actual insurance company representatives.  What certification would the dog get, for example?  What certification would I get?  What would the dog's duties be?  Blah, blah, blah.  And wasn't everyone astonished when the insurance company responded, "Oh, therapy dogs have to go through so much training we have no problem with them.  It wouldn't affect your insurance a bit."  

When I told our head of school that the therapy dog was a go, his jaw literally dropped.   Then he made a sardonic (though witty) remark about my efficiency.  In five days, I had transformed from a woman who never wanted to have a dog again to a woman who had persuaded her husband, a business manager, a lawyer, a head of school and an insurance company (not to mention herself) that a dog was not only a wonderful companion, but a vital necessity for the well-being of two hundred fifty teenagers.  

The next step was to find the perfect dog.


  1. No dry eyes here. You know, you should write a book about this!

  2. We will be anxiously awaiting the next installment.

    I hope I can have your consent to share with the
    Bedlington fancy.

    Lucy Heyman

  3. Just to let you know, there are plenty of bedlingtons doing therapy work! Be sure to check out Therapy Dogs, Inc ( as well as the other national registries. They don't provide insurance when you are on the clock as an employee, but they have much to offer besides that. TDInc can help you even if there is no tester in your area. There is also the Delta Society and Therapy Dogs, International.

    Ricky has a blog too....

    Wishing you all the best as you break new ground at your school!

    Debbie & Ricky