Sunday, December 4, 2011

Educating Cleo

We have been kicked upstairs!

Last week, a new session of training classes began.  Partly because the timing of the Intermediate Level 1 classes works better for me and partly because I didn’t feel confident about moving up to Intermediate Level 2, I decided that we would stay in the easier class for another round.  Several dogs and handlers with whom we’ve been going to classes for months also stayed in Level 1.  Between the holdovers and the new arrivals from the Beginners Class, there was barely room to move in class last Monday.  So when I overheard the woman taking enrollments saying to our trainer that the class was way oversubscribed, I took a deep breath and said, “Cleo and I can move to the later class, if that would help.”  The treasurer looked at me doubtfully, then turned to the trainer.

“Are they ready to move up?”

“Of course they are,” snapped Pluis.

“I mean,” I added hastily, “we’re comfortable here, so—“

“It’s time to get you out of your comfort zone,” she cut in.  “Come to Intermediate 2 next week.”

Although I’m nervous about the idea of moving to the next level, with off-leash work and other exotic tasks, it’s also very exciting.  Cleo has grown up so much in the last months.  Colleagues continually remark on the progress she has made, staying charmingly sweet, but understanding more and more what it is to be a truly well-behaved dog.  And to be honest, we were both pretty bored last Monday, repeating the lessons we already knew.

I recognize that one of the things I’m learning (and there have been so many this first year with Cleo that I’ve lost count) is to balance my natural caution with my natural impatience.  I can’t wait for Cleo to be fully certified as a therapy dog, but I don’t want to rush her, to push her into the testing before she’s ready.  Yet I also recognize that I can far too easily hold back because of a fear of failure.  But tomorrow at 7:15 PM, we’ll embark on our first Intermediate 2 class and let the chips fall where they may!

For some reason since last week’s class, I have been thinking back to the stories last March about Monty, the dog who was in circulation for a time at the Yale Law Library.  Monty belongs to one of the librarians there.  As a certified therapy dog, he was allowed to be checked out for half hour periods so that students could hang out with him in a back office of the library.  Supposedly, he mostly sat on the couch while students pet him, or sometimes he sat in their laps.  Every student interviewed for the many stories on Monty, from the New York Times to NPR, reported really enjoying both being with the dog and the opportunity to think about and focus on something besides classes, exams or trying to find a job.  Yale isn’t the only university to offer this service.  Harvard Law School, Tufts, and the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, among others, are equally enlightened enough to provide therapy dogs to their students during stressful periods, like exam weeks.

Cleo has her group of regulars who visit at least once a day, one several times a day.  Then she has her periodic visitors who drop by every few weeks.  Of course, there are the students who come in when they are upset or concerned and she happily greets them.  The majority of the students don’t interact with her at all, which is perfectly fine.  They know she’s around; when we head up to the field for our daily romp, there are always several students who call out to greet her, even though they’ve never stopped by for a one-on-one.  Sometimes it’s enough just to know she’s there, even if they don’t “check her out.”  Cleo makes her presence known in many ways.

Our school has short meetings for the whole school community several times a week.  Faculty, staff, students and visitors come together for a quarter hour of announcements.  These “Breaks” are led by the student government and are completely uncensored by any adult.  We trust the students so completely that we often encourage people interested in finding out more about our school to visit on a day when we have Break.  Over the years I’ve been with the school, Breaks have evolved from purely information-passing gatherings to performance events.  At least one Sophomore Speech, a required element of sophomore English class, delights us at each Break.  The Punmeister, a student-appointed office, periodically shares original (and sometimes not-so-original) pun filled stories.  A student announcement might involve a guitar, ukulele or piano accompaniment to a song.  A faculty announcement may take the form of a haiku or sonnet.

As part of her training, I periodically take Cleo to Break.  I want her getting used to being calm in large groups of people, staying mellow amid clapping.  She has gradually gotten more comfortable, no longer hopping up and down or trying to climb up my leg as students swarm into the room.  Now she often sits or even lies down during announcements, gazing out the window at rabbits and quail on the lawn.  Now and then, we are both surprised, she by something that happens, me by her reaction to it.

The other day, the Hip Hop Dance Club announced an upcoming meeting.  They usually do this by first performing one of the routines they’ve been working on.  So all at once from an unseen boombox there came a “Ching-ching-ching” followed by the rhythmic thumping of bass and drums, and the insistent beat of something electronic.  I didn’t hear much more because as soon as the chings started, Cleo did, too.  From lying down, head on paws staring out the window, she transformed to the roaring defender of hearth and home.  BARK-BARK-BARKA-BARK-BARK!!! 

The whole audience erupted into laughter.  As I tried to settle her down, the Head of School leaned over to me and said, “I agree with Cleo.  I hate Hip Hop music, too.”  As much as I would love to credit Cleo with a refined musical sensibility (her daddy is a master guitarist, after all), she wasn’t being a music critic.  In fact, at the moment the music started, I’m pretty sure she and I had the same thought because we both reacted at the same time, I was just a little more contained.  I had been watching her, but when I heard the first sounds from the boombox, I whipped my head up and started looking around.  Those ching-ching-chings sounded exactly like the rattling of tags on a dog’s collar.  Cleo and I both wanted to know: Where’s the other dog?

There’s plenty of work to be done.  And patience is a virtue for dog and human alike.  Intermediate Level 2, here we come!

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