Cleo came home the week before Thanksgiving, an ideal time in the life of my school as we had classes only two days of that week. This allowed us to dip our toes in the water without, hopefully, overwhelming a little girl who had known her new pack just a scant couple of days. I had reservations about taking her to school so soon, the long days in the office, the exposure to such a variety of people, the possibly conflicting standards of appropriate behavior. I still wonder from time to time if I have complicated my life by allowing her training to include such a wide range of input. But after long consideration, I decided that it was better for her to come to school with me, even if it meant periodic crate time while I was in class, than to be confined to her crate for several hours while John and I were at work.
And so, the therapy-dog-in-training was introduced to her new workplace. Let me just say that when Jan Balladarsch told me, “This little girl has never met a stranger,” she was not exaggerating. Cleo adores people. A human being is an instant friend in her eyes. Can ya ask for anything more from a therapy dog? I think not. When our vet first came to check Cleo out, I mentioned to him that I was training her to be a therapy dog. He laughed and said, “Training her? Is that a joke?” She does have abundant natural talent. Certified therapy dogs have to prove themselves, though, and certification is not only what I promised the school, but also what I want for both Cleo and my students.
To be certified with Therapy Dogs International, a dog must pass the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen Test and then be evaluated by an approved TDI gatekeeper. Cleo will need to prove that she can:
- Accept a friendly stranger (Check, and probably an unfriendly one, too.)
- Sit politely for petting (Part of the time, and if you count trying to slobber all over your hand as “polite,” then about three-quarters of the time.)
- Accept grooming from a stranger (Bedlingtons have to be groomed because they have hair rather than fur. This is both a great blessing as that’s what makes them hypoallergenic, but also a mild curse as their soft puppy hair is the dog world’s answer to Velcro. It attracts all burrs, sticks and oak leaves in a three mile radius. Anyway, check.)
- Walk well on a leash (Okay, we’re working on this one. The world is a very exciting place full of possibilities and some of us just can’t wait to see what’s around the next corner.)
- Walk through a crowd (This is a daily activity, but again, some of us—not mentioning any names—have trouble understanding that we may not be the center of every single human being’s universe and feel the need to greet vigorously if we are ignored.)
- Sit, down and stay on command; come when called (This is the focus of the training class we’re in now and progress is pretty good. Have I mentioned she is one smart little girl?)
- Interact positively with other dogs (Okay, we’ll come back to this one; for the moment, we plead the fifth.)
- Stay alert, but not aggressive, at loud noises or unexpected distractions (Let’s just say that we’ve made huge progress here—it helps that the school’s maintenance department head drives his Cushman past our window several times a day and that the gardeners make weekly visits with their two-stroke engines.)
- Calmly accept medical equipment like wheel chairs and crutches (Haven’t tried this yet, but my instinct is that as long as there are people attached, Cleo won’t have a problem.)
- Prove the ability to “leave it” (It’s a work in progress.)
- Confidently and calmly accept supervised separation from me (I can only say that she has plenty of visitors while I’m in class and that she loves going on walks with her Auntie Kim and several devoted admirers.)
|Walking with a fan.|
She heels better with her mom...
- Exhibit no sign of aggression or disturbance with running or playing children (This will be the toughest, not on the aggression front, but on the disturbance front. She wants to join in, no matter the size of the child. That’s fine if you’re sixteen and 5 foot 10, but it can be scary if you’re three and your eyes and the dog’s are at the same level. You see those teeth coming at you and it doesn’t occur to you that all the dog wants to do is lick the snot off your face.)
- Show a willingness and even interest in “Saying hello” or being placed in the lap of a stranger or otherwise made available for petting (Ding, ding, ding!! We have a winner!)
So those are the tasks of the therapy dog. From time to time I fret that I will prove incompetent in this whole scheme, but then I remind myself to trust in Cleo when I can’t trust in myself. Besides, she’s only seven months old. The path before us is long and curving, and full of fascination and the unexpected. It takes a pack to raise a puppy, and I have faith in ours.
On her first day at school, I limited her encounters so that she wouldn’t become over stimulated. She met mostly adults and mostly avid dog people. She met Carol, the school’s librarian, whose desk is just feet from my office. Carol is one of those rare people who make you feel good just being in their presence, whether you’re two-legged or four-legged. She’s kind and caring, but also arch and funny. And she has the best sense of humor of anyone I’ve ever met. She laughs at all my jokes. Carol came in with Cammy, psych teacher, tech guru and the exemplar of what it means to be a teacher. She is constantly developing, always expecting more of herself. The phrase, “Good enough” has no place in her lexicon. She takes a sharp interest in the lives of everyone around her and remembers details of conversations she had five years ago. Cleo thought they were both wonderful. She chewed on their fingers, licked their noses, showed off her pink squeaky pig, accepted all of their admiration, then toddled over to the corner and peed on the rug.
She met Kim, a marine biologist whose many rings and bracelets completely fascinated Cleo. She wanted to taste each one, but settled on jumping up and trying to catch Kim’s gesticulating hands, a game they both still seem to enjoy. Kim and I have long discussed the merits of different dog breeds and both the pleasures and the responsibilities of dog ownership. Well, we’ve discussed, argued about, celebrated or cried over pretty much every event in our lives for the last ten years, so when, after meeting Cleo, she paused at my office door and said, “You done good,” we were all pretty happy.
Late on the first day, we went to visit Chuck, the head of school, in his office. Chuck and his wife Elizabeth have raised a number of gentle, beautifully behaved Labs. Some they’ve not only raised, but rehabilitated after rescue. They pour love, patience and consistent discipline into their dogs, and the result is as obvious as a Lab’s swinging tail. Buck, often given the appellation “the Wonder Dog,” was a gentle spirit who was awarded a therapy dog certificate just for being himself. The bond between the man and the Wonder Dog was one of those once in a lifetime connections and Buck’s death a few years ago was heartbreaking.
When Cleo and I walked into Chuck’s office, his eyebrows went up and he exclaimed, “Ah, here she is. The Texarkana star.” Cleo stopped dead in her tracks and stared at him. Chuck was born and raised in Atlanta and still retains a regional spice in his speech. Although the Texarkana accent could hardly be further from the Georgia one, I think Cleo recognized the sounds of her origins. It must have been comforting to her, only a few days into her California conversion. She walked up to him and sniffed his pant leg. When he reached down to pat her, she immediately started chewing on his fingers. At least she didn’t pee on his carpet.
It was a good first day.