Sunday, June 24, 2012

We Don't Need Another Hero...or do we?

When I first came up with the scheme to adopt a dog and train her to be a therapy dog for my students at school, I thought the idea was so brilliant and original.  It didn’t take long for me to learn that, while it might be brilliant, it sure wasn’t original.  Almost from the get-go people told me stories of friends, relatives, friends of friends, relatives of relatives, all who took, knew, and otherwise experienced therapy dogs at schools.  Not all of them were being used as I envisioned employing my new dog.  Many of the pups I heard about went to grade schools where struggling readers read out loud to them.  Still, there were those, like mine, whose raison d’être was to snuggle with students in the school counselor’s office.

As the months have gone by, I’ve heard more stories, whether from folks who read the blog or from tuning in to the Bedlington Terrier community.  People have shared their excitement when their dogs passed the therapy dog tests, they’ve forwarded articles about the now numerous colleges and universities whose libraries “check out” stress reducing dogs during exam periods, I’ve even seen stories and articles about titled dogs retiring from the show ring to become therapy dogs.

In the last week, especially, I’ve been keenly aware of the naiveté which lead me to think, more than a year ago, that anyone would be interested in reading about my experiences with training a dog to become a therapy dog at a small independent school on the Central Coast of California.  Yet, readers have been so kind, and I’ve gotten to meet, at least virtually, people who share a love equal to mine and an experience far greater of Bedlington Terriers and dogs in general.  And there is something else.  In writing a thousand words or so about our experiences every week (with a couple of gaps here and there), there has been a quality to the journey I don’t think we would have felt otherwise.  A consciousness of sharing the process, maybe, which led to a consciousness of the process itself.

On Blog Day One as I stared at the Blogspot instruction, “Give a brief description of your blog,” a desire to prove how special Cleo was prompted me to write that it was a blog “about a perfect Bedlington Terrier.”  I realize that I no longer care if the world thinks she’s special.  John and I do, and that’s enough.

So here I’ve been, for this last week or two, pondering how common it is to have a therapy dog, and how naïve I was to want to write about the process.  Completely uncharacteristically, I decided to watch a TED talk as I ate lunch this afternoon.  I’m very fond of TED talks, but when I eat a meal alone, I’m far more likely to read a novel or a news article than to watch a video.  But John has an excruciatingly long wedding gig up in Capitola today, I recently finished one novel and wasn’t ready to jump into another, and the news has just been too disheartening lately, so I poked at the TED ap icon on my iPad, tapped on “Recommended,” noticed a talk on connection in a wired world, hit play and took a bite of my sandwich.

The speaker was a psychologist named Sherry Turkle.  Her talk was called “Connected, but alone?”  I’ve embedded it at the end, if you want to watch, which I recommend.  Her research has shown something that probably won’t surprise anyone: People check their email in board meetings, they shop or go on Facebook when they’re in class, they text at family dinners.  Children complain that their parents are unavailable to them because the adults are too busy checking their email at the breakfast table.  Of course, Turkle follows this up with a picture of her daughter and a couple of friends hanging out together.  Each one is buried in her phone, texting.  Some of her subjects even admitted to texting during funerals.

After several of her subjects told her that they wished that a technological entity like Siri, the voice of the iPhone’s virtual assistant, could be their best friend, Turkle had to ask herself why.  Her answer is that as we have come to expect more and more of our technology, we expect less and less of each other.  We are so used to being shortchanged by our human friends and their distractions, we are so convinced that we are not being listened to, that we have turned to the dependable presence of technology instead.  If I post to Facebook, someone might “like” my status update.  It seems someone has registered my existence.  But a snippet doesn’t have the same resonance as a conversation.  If there is no give and take, do we really feel heard?

A significant area of technological research is the Sociable Robot, designed to be companions to the elderly and to children.  Turkle took one in the shape of a baby seal to a nursing home where she was doing research and left it with a woman who had lost a child.  The robot seemed to look at the woman, seemed to be listening and tracking what she said.  It gave her its undivided attention.  It provided the appearance of empathy.  But, Turkle mourned, this woman was trying to make sense of her loss with something that had no understanding of life and death, that had no arc of experience.

The moment I heard this story, I thought of Cleo’s Grandmother Jan who takes her Bedlington, Sterling, to a nursing home regularly.  Sterling visits with a woman who one day told him that she was concerned about her finances because the person supposedly taking care of them wouldn’t show her the bank’s statements.  As the woman unfolded her story, Sterling listened warmly, but so did Jan, and she went to bat for this woman.  In short order, they discovered that the “caretaker” had taken care of $20,000 into her own pocket.

Thanks to a human-therapy dog team, this elderly woman had not only connection, but communication, empathy and protection.  Stories like this abound because that’s what the therapy dog programs are all about.  The warm, furry ambassador builds the sense of trust and safety, the human parent follows up with empathy, the depth of experience, and most importantly, a keenly attentive ear.

The world can never have too many therapy dogs.  It may not be an original idea to want to add another one, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable.  I hereby go on record: I fully embrace and accept my naiveté!

View the complete TED Talk, Connected, but alone?  

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Social Chrysalis

Last weekend was one of nonstop adventures for the little Cleo girl. She was Ponce de Leon, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Margaret Mead all rolled into one.

For months, a dear friend had been inviting us to join her and her dogs for a walk in the canyon that defines the edge of her property.  As enticement (as if we needed any) she had emailed me pictures and videos of a pair of hawks and their nestlings which she had taken from the deck of her house. The videos show the parents trading egg warming duties, the first hatchling reaching up on a still-wobbly neck to receive food, the two hatchlings squawking impatiently as mom tears shreds of meat from a squirrel, the fledgling babies flapping their wings to build muscle, the adolescent hawks taking that first life affirming leap into the nothingness that surrounds their pine top home.  I wanted to see the hawks, the nest, the canyon firsthand.

Besides that, I wanted Cleo to spend time with my friends’ dogs.  One of the things the therapy dog test requires is that dogs be comfortable, or at least polite, with other dogs.  Cleo does beautifully in class.  She will perform figure eights around other dogs, sit by them, even do prolonged down-stays right next to another dog.  But the minute we leave the designated class area, she is bouncing at the end of her leash, pulling and tugging to encounter other dogs.  She’s all hyperactivity and exuberance until the other dog actually turns around and makes a move to engage.  Then, Cleo shies away, tail tucked in terror.  On walks it’s worse.  She spots a dog, starts to pull toward it, the dog turns to her, she barks her fool head off.  The bark used to sound excited and playful; now it just sounds aggressive.  She isn’t aggressive by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s hard to reassure the other dog’s person of that, especially with Cleo barking so loudly I can’t make myself heard.  If that happens during the therapy dog test, we’ll be disqualified immediately.  I’ve tried multiple techniques, from Cesar Milan’s to our own trainer’s, to help Cleo socialize, but so far,  nothing has taken root.

So my plan for last Friday was to introduce Cleo to two sweet and gentle dogs, one of them quite elderly, and ask them to teach her to be social.  Two hours, ninety-two foxtails, fifteen ticks, a fall into the creek and a bee sting later, Cleo had learned to walk side by side with the other dogs as long as they ignored her.  Any time one looked at her, she still shied away.  Add to the tally a $148 vet bill when, by Monday, Cleo was still intermittently worrying her bee-stung foot.  But, hey!  It was progress.

On Saturday, the big outing was a kind of diplomatic mission to establish rapprochement between Cleo and a family of dogs she will stay with for a week in July while John and I are on vacation.  Our beloved sitter with whom Cleo stayed when we went to New Orleans is getting bionic knees, so we’ve had to go with Plan B: Cleo will stay with a woman who comes highly recommended, but whom we had never met. 

When we arrived at her house, a chorus of barks sang us from street to yard.  A human emerged from the house.  We greeted each other; Cleo was enthusiastic and polite.  “Okay,” said the sitter, “I’ll let a few of them out at a time so that Cleo doesn’t feel overwhelmed.”  A few of them? 

“How many dogs do you have?” I asked her.

“Oh, just five of my own.” 

Oh, well.  That’s probably okay. 

“Plus two that I’m fostering.” 


“And one that’s boarding with me this week.”

A melee of dogs bounded into the yard.  Not one came as high as Cleo’s armpit.  Three of them swarmed around her, sniffing excitedly.  A fourth gave her a bored look and sacked out in a patch of sunshine.  Cleo looked like she was trying to stand on tiptoe to get away from them.  “Give her space,” the sitter told her brood.  The dogs scattered.  Cleo pressed her quivering side against my calf and looked at me pleadingly.  “You’ve got to toughen up,” I told her, but relented and sat down on the slightly urine-y smelling lawn.  She put her back feet in the oval made by my criss-crossed legs and observed the circuitous paths of the sniffing dogs.  Within a minute or two, she ventured away from me and sniffed where the other dogs had sniffed.  She was doing great as long as the other dogs ignored her.  Three more tumbled out of the house.  “There’s one I’m going to keep in,” the sitter told us.  “He’s one of my fosters.  He’s fine with dogs, but he bites people.  Even me.”  Really, I’m fine with him staying locked up.  Cleo was still the biggest dog in the yard. 

Things were going well enough that we all headed into the house to meet the cat.  The sitter wanted to be sure that Cleo wouldn’t chase the cat (who frankly looks like he knows what his claws are for).  He lives in a house with seven (or eight) other dogs, for crying out loud.  He is no one’s fool.  Cleo was fascinated until the cat tried to rub his head against her.  She seemed to find this a little too forward.  The dogs, meanwhile, had all sacked out on giant dog beds lined up across the living room floor.  The youngest of them all is seven, so most of them had gone to sleep, tired out from the excitement of sniffing in the yard.  Cleo stood in the middle of the room pondering it all.  I could practically hear the gears of her brain clicking away.  Every dog of the motley pack was beautifully behaved, instantly responsive to instructions from their mom/foster mom/sitter.  Having Cleo stay there will be a little like plunging her into the deep end of the pool, but I think she will learn from her week with the pack.  And I am convinced she’ll be safe and cared for.  When we got home from this outing, she curled into a ball on the chaisse and slept it off for a couple of hours.

I had high hopes for our Sunday outing.  After months of trying, I had finally been able to arrange a play date for Cleo with another Bedlington Terrier!  This dog, the beautiful Juliet, lives in LA and vacations in Carmel Valley Village, about twenty minutes from Monterey.  We arranged to meet at the Village Community Park, a wide open field ideal for running and playing. 

Juliet, Joyce & Cleo
 I guess I harbored the fantasy that Cleo would see Juliet and recognize her, or at least see their similarity.  Juliet was delighted to see Cleo, but the feeling wasn’t mutual.  Oh, once again, Cleo tolerated her.  She didn’t bark her head off, which was good, but she certainly wasn’t interested in playing.  Juliet, a mother of Bedlingtons herself, was firmly, though courteously, protective of Cleo when another dog came over to check them both out.  In fact, Juliet was everything you’d hope a Bedlington to be: sweet, affectionate, affable, funny.  I so dearly wanted the light to dawn in Cleo.  I imagined Juliet as Anne Sullivan holding Cleo’s Helen Keller paw under the water spigot, frantically signing “w-a-t-e-r” as Cleo, gasping in wonder, croaked out “wa-wa!” 

John tries to play go-between.
Well, we took some nice pictures of the dogs.  It was gloriously warm in the Valley.  John and I got to meet another Bedlington and her dad.  But the social butterfly has yet to spread her wings.  We’ll see how she does with the mini-dog cotillion.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

"A little madness in the Spring"

May is always an intense month for school folks, hence the lack of a blog post for such a long time.  My schedule has made it pretty tough on Cleo; she either spent a lot of time in our office without me or was banished from school altogether and spent her days hanging out at home with Daddy and the cats.  Could be worse!

Which reminds me that a couple weeks ago, Cleo and I were in the Head of School’s office talking something over when I suddenly noticed that her slip collar was on upside down.  “Did Daddy put your collar on backwards?” I asked her.  There was a brief silence, then the Head said, “If my wife ever referred to me as my dogs’ ‘Daddy,’ I’d have something to say about it.  I love them, but they are not blood relatives.”  Each to his own, I say.  Personally, I’m proud to be Cleo’s Mom.

Anyway, May kicked off with interviews for a newly vacant faculty position, then moved swiftly into AP exams.  I’m not a big fan of the College Board.  I think APs are a giant waste of time and parents’ money.  Obviously, I’m not alone in this, given that more and more colleges and universities are eliminating any kind of “advanced placement” in their courses based on students’ scores on the AP exams.  There is also a growing number of high schools that have cut way back on or entirely eliminated their AP course offerings.  Schools have just had it up to their mortar boards with teaching to the test, whatever that test might be.  The demands of the AP exams require teachers to move fast and stay shallow.  Think about US History, for example.  Courses still have to start at the inception of the United States, but every year they have to go further and further.  It’s not like the time to teach the material is getting any longer.  Since I was in school taking AP US History, we’ve had Watergate, the end of the Vietnam War, the first resignation of a President, the Iran Hostage Crisis—I haven’t even gotten out of the 70s yet—Reaganomics, the end of the Cold War, Iran-Contra…Oh, forget it.  You get the point. 

But I digress.  So, the last few weeks of school for Cleo were either feast or famine.  During the first week of May, we had multiple student meltdowns in the younger grades and a good deal of slacking off and playing with the puppy in the senior class.  That was the feast time.  Then APs and final exams hit.  That was the famine.  Poor Cleo didn’t even get to say goodbye to her best friend, Betsy, and believe me, I caught a lot of grief for that.  Not from Cleo.  She’s very forgiving.  But my name is probably still mud as far as Betsy is concerned.  I believe her exact words were, “How could you?!”  The sad truth is that sometimes you have to put the needs of the many above the needs of the one.  The reunion, come August, will be all the sweeter.

At least that’s the story I’m sticking to.

Even during the student meltdowns Cleo wasn’t always able to help me.  One involved a student’s unauthorized departure from campus and subsequent game of hide-and-seek in the wilderness area across the street from us.  Cleo hasn’t done any nose work yet, so she was no help as a tracker dog.  Still, the Sheriff we had to call in was mightily taken with her.  The aftermath of that little event ended up involving several other students, all of whom I had to talk to, draw out, cross-examine or otherwise elicit information from.  Not one of my happier times on campus. 

I still have to laugh when I recall my conversation with a sophomore girl who was probably most in-the-know about the runaway’s difficulties.  She thinks of herself as a master manipulator, and truth be told, she does have some finely honed skills in this area.  But much of the time she is so blatant in her manipulation that I end up feeling more compassion for her than irritation.  An elfin child, she will gaze at one, her big brown eyes welling with tears, and bite her lip just so before saying, “Those boys are so mean to me.”  I’ll admit, I was thoroughly taken in the first few times she performed her aria, that is until I learned just who had her teeth in whom.

The day I had to question her about her fleet-of-foot friend, a colleague joined me.  As we walked into my office, Cleo hopped down from the couch to greet us all.  The student pulled back with a stifled, “Oh!”  Now, she had been in my office with Cleo multiple times during her ninth grade year.  She had even visited with her while I was out of the office.  My colleague didn’t know this.  In a kindly tone, he said to her, “Don’t you like dogs?” 

“Oh, no,” she responded promptly.  “I like dogs.  I just don’t like Cleo.”

As Ace Ventura used to say, “Reeee-ally?”  Who knew?!

But Cleo couldn’t care less and neither could I.  The tough times for the puppy were when she couldn’t go to school with me at all.  All the love and compassion that fills her being, and only John and me to expend it on.  I don’t think we realized just how crisis-starved she was until we were watching The Colbert Report one night.  Cleo loves this show; it’s her favorite on television.  She will sleep through Jeopardy, The Daily Show, The Borgias and even Game of Thrones, but when Stephen Colbert comes on, she sits up and takes notice.  You might think it’s the flying eagle at the beginning or the cry of the falcon in the soundtrack (masquerading as the call of an American eagle—don’t be fooled), but she will even watch The Word, though I don’t think she gets all the jokes.  So this particular night Colbert was discussing gay marriage with the former star of Will and Grace.  Colbert was becoming very emotional, even breaking down and sobbing at one point.  As his hand went to his eyes and his voice broke, Cleo got up from her place beside John, quietly jumped off the couch and padded delicately to the television.  She stood on her hind legs and stared at the now extremely close up image of Stephen Colbert, sobbing, on the screen.  She reached up and put a paw on his “chest,” staring into his face.  Ears down, nose upturned, she stood on two legs and gazed at him comfortingly until he went to the commercial break.

I swear, I am not making this up.  Some dogs are trained for therapy.  Some are born to it.