Truly, there is no way of knowing what is best for another human being.
When I was studying psychology for a bit, one of the required texts was titled, How Clients Make Therapy Work. The point of the book, obviously, was that it is not the therapist who effects a cure, but rather the client who brings a creative, invested presence to the session and who, therefore, figures out the best pathway to healing for him or for her. The best thing the counselor can do, then, is to be fully present, authentically listening, and to provide the space and the experience for the client to find a way home. Nothing has made this clearer to me than one little dog.
When I first started as dean of students, I felt like a failure if I couldn’t solve every student’s problem in one sitting. I wanted to guide, advise, fix, coddle and restore every individual who came through my door. If I could do it all in forty-five minutes or less, so much the better. Thankfully, over the years I’ve come to realize not only the impossibility of such a feat, but the downright damage that such an outlook can inflict. It’s great to give advice, but if a child isn’t developmentally ready to enact that advice, your words have been worthless and you’ve cut yourself off as an avenue of solace—why would a child turn again to someone who just made her feel inadequate and alone? Sometimes a situation simply can’t be fixed, and to make a promise to a child that you will is to lie to him. To coddle a teenager, as much as one might want to, is to send one of two messages: Either that the people around you will always step in to make life easier for you (Good luck with that) or that you, teenager on the cusp of adulthood, are not competent enough to handle the challenges that await you. Neither of these is a productive message.
Now when I feel the kneejerk need to make the booboo go away, I take a deep breath, let go and listen. In fact, I have learned to accept that sometimes, I’m not the right person for the job. Rather than my approach, a student might feel more comfortable talking to a man, dealing with someone a bit gruffer, or any number of qualities different from mine. Some of this understanding has come from classes and workshops, some from experience and a lot from Cleo.
This past week was the first full week of classes and Cleo and I have had many opportunities to interact with students. Some stand back and observe her from a distance.
“She’s gotten so big” is a constant refrain.
“Look how much lighter she is,” they say, comparing her in the flesh (or in the fur) to her pictures from last spring which hang next to my door.
“What are those spots?” asks one in dismay.
“Oh, I love her spots,” exclaims the next.
Others come right up to the baby gate, but stay on the far side, leaning over to pat her or actually reaching through the bars. “You can come in,” I say to them. They ignore me. After I go back to whatever I was working on, I can hear them talking to her softly. I can’t tell what they are saying, but both of them seem to be getting a lot out of the conversation.
Others come into the office and sit on the floor or on the sofa and talk to me as they pat her. As her recent cut has grown out, I’m hearing a lot more comments of “She looks like a dinosaur” than that she looks like a lamb. There is a certain pterodactyl-like air about her.
Whenever I have thought of therapy dogs, I’ve always pictured a gentle, demure creature who moves delicately and calmly through the wards followed by the Ohs and Ahs of an uplifted populace. It turns out that adolescents really need something different, and Cleo is more than happy to oblige. Oh, I still want Cleo to be able to do the gentle and demure thing, but I had no idea how much my students would love rough-housing with her.
One new student who comes to visit Cleo regularly is a young woman, I’ll call her Bea, for whom school is simply exhausting. She was diagnosed with ADD three or four years ago and has been learning to manage her focus, attention and organization since then. Staying on task and attentive to the events in a classroom for six periods a day is an effort that takes every ounce of her willpower and energy. In fact, it verges on the heroic, but she is so committed to her education that she makes that effort with cheerful good grace every day. Then she comes to my office and wrestles with Cleo. They roll around on the floor together, Cleo trying to lick Bea’s nose while Bea tries to defend herself. Sometimes Cleo will sneak up behind her, stand on her hind legs and wrap her front legs around Bea’s neck, pinning her as she chews on her hair. The first time all this happened I tried to stop Cleo from being so rough. Bea made it very clear that she loved it, in fact, that she needed just that kind of brawling energy.
Friday was the back to school dance, and Cleo and I chaperoned set up. Our dances, possibly uniquely, are held in our school library which makes it easy for me to monitor the decorating committee. Their approach this time around was minimalist: a few laser lights, a fog machine and several beach balls. They finished pretty quickly. Since Cleo and I were on duty for another hour and half, I closed the outside doors and let her run around the building. When I opened the baby gate to let her out, you would have thought I’d opened the gates to Disneyland. “No way! For real?!” a student exclaimed, gaping at me. “Sure,” I said. For the next forty-five minutes I heard two or three students and a very happy dog pelting around two floors of the library. Chase, Fetch, Keep-away, Monkey in the Middle, Tag and Race-You-to-the-Top-of-the-Stairs cycled around each other.
Gradually, each student was picked up for dinner before the dance. I heard the last, “Bye Cleo!” and figured it was time to collect her before she started tip-toeing around on my cracked ceiling again. I stepped out of my office, but stopped, stood still and listened.
Pock! Jingle-jingle-jingle. Pock! Jingle-jingle-jingle.
I quietly stepped forward and peeked over the railing down to the bottom floor. I hadn’t realized Simon was in the library still; I thought he’d left as soon as set up was finished. Yet there he stood at one end of the library, Cleo’s ball in hand. As I watched, he bounced it hard against the floor, Pock! As it flew up, Cleo danced on her hind legs, forefeet in the air, then as it came down she dashed after it, grabbed it and brought it back to him: jingle-jingle-jingle went her collar. She dropped it at his feet. He bounced it again: Pock! Jingle-jingle-jingle.
On Thursday morning, Simon’s father had come to speak to me. Simon, one of the most principled, earnest people I’ve ever known, has been showing signs of depression lately, expressing to his dad a sense of hopelessness. Both his father and his mother suffer from bipolar disorder, the onset of which often accompanies puberty. Simon’s dad came in to ask me to keep an eye on him.
As he played with Cleo, Simon’s face was intent and serious. He didn’t smile at her antics. He was completely unaware, of course, that it is almost unheard of for Cleo to bring the ball back and drop it. After all, Keep-away is her favorite game. I backed away; I didn’t want him to see me watching. I listened in, though, as they played for several more minutes. Once or twice I heard Simon chuckle quietly. Then the sounds of the game stopped and I heard him talking softly to Cleo. I have no idea what he was saying to her, but a few moments later, he bounded up the stairs two at a time. He banged out of the library and an instant later I heard him call out to one of his friends. As I watched through the window, the two boys met in the center of the Quad, laughed and headed up to the parking lot.
Cleo had followed Simon up the stairs and stood, tongue lolling, looking after him. She saw me and walked over to sit on my foot. “Good job, Baby Girl,” I told her.
My students seem to know what they need from a therapy dog. And Cleo knows how to respond. The official therapy dog certification, that’s for us humans. Our dogs already know what to do.