Wednesday, February 6, 2013

In Therapy

Our Lab Wesley opened so many doors to me, doors I would never have imagined possible when he entered our lives in the spring of 2001. His bad behavior (attributable mostly to the bad job I was doing training him) led us to enroll him in obedience school.

That first 10-week class was the beginning of some long-term friendships that I maintain to this day. It also set us on a course toward accomplishments that have been very rewarding, including American Kennel Club titles and a therapy dog certification.

The therapy dog aspect of Wesley's career evolved in the latter part of his life, when I was ready to retire him from the rigors of dog showing, an activity he never really enjoyed but that he endured for my sake. Getting authorized for therapy work involved a health screen and a test of certain behaviors, and at his age, it was a no-brainer for Wes to pass.

Several venues were open to us, and we chose to center on a program by which struggling students are paired with dog/handler teams to bolster reading skills. The theory on which this program rests is that, as a listener, a dog is extremely non-judgmental, and in an atmosphere free of reprisals for making a mistake, a child can strengthen his/her reading skills.

Wesley loved these sessions. Our focus was at the Royersford Public Library, where we would join a team of handlers and dogs each Saturday morning and help struggling kids for an hour. For Wes, this meant snuggling down on a comfy blanket, enjoying a flurry of pets and hugs, and listening to a young reader work through Clifford the Big Red Dog or Are You My Mother (all appropriately canine-themed, because to an eight year old reading to a dog, the natural assumption is to read a dog story!). 

There were other canine/handler teams involved in other aspects of therapy work. Several of our members went to local retirement homes to visit with the elderly.

But I shied away.

My mother was, at that time, floundering under the loss of my dad and succumbing at an alarming rate to the ravages of dementia. The last thing I wanted to do was face that kind of deterioration in what was supposed to be an enjoyable activity, in addition to watching it take Mom.

In September 2008, her body would fail her, following her memories to oblivion.

In November 2010, Wes would be lost, too, bringing my work with therapy dogs to an end.

Thankfully, the break turned out to be only a temporary pause, as Wesley gave way to Parker, our yellow boy, who joined the family in June 2011.

My goals for Parker's training were similar to mine for Wesley's: AKC titles and a therapy dog designation. He has succeeded on both fronts, achieving a Canine Good Citizen (CGC) designation, a Rally Novice AKC title, and a passing evaluation from Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs, Inc.

The issue for Parker and me then was to find some kind of outlet for our therapy work.

The reading program had shifted from a Saturday morning activity at the local library to a Friday morning one at the local elementary school.

When I was tossed from my job back in April, I was easily able to leash him up and help some fledgling readers each week, an activity Parker seemed to enjoy as much as Wesley did.

But with my return to full-time employment, I knew another solution had to be found. I was somewhat compelled because Bright and Beautiful requires a certain number of volunteer hours per week to maintain active status.

It was time to put on my big-boy pants and face the dementia/Alzheimer's patients that had caused my skittishness.

Last night, we took a big step: Parker and I went to a skilled nursing facility for a visit, our first-time exploring this avenue of our therapy work.  

Parker was fantastic. He was a little jazzed when we first arrived (bounce-bounce-bounce!), understandable since he'd never been there before. And a little puppy-ish with the other dogs on the team, until I explained to him that this was a work session and not a play date (although he did get to romp outside on the lawn with a German Shepherd when we were finished, much to his glee).

But in general, terrific with the elderly residents and more than happy to get lots of pets and lovins.

I knew he was well-suited to this when two things happened: he connected with an elderly gentleman who was sitting by himself, isolated, in front of a droning television set. Our interaction was only a few moments in length, but enough for the resident to scritch Parker's ear and smile a little.

The second was a big schlurpy kiss he gave an elderly woman. Thankfully, she is a long-time dog lover and accustomed to being slimed.

All in all, it was a very successful night.

For Parker.

And maybe even more for me.

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