Thursday, September 26, 2013

The People in Line Behind Me

When you raise a puppy and you're out in public, you try your best to project a good image. You vigilantly keep Puppy from sniffing the lower shelves at the grocery, from blocking a busy doorway at a store, from tugging towards an interesting person passing by, from squirming as you stand in line. But of course, nobody (me or Puppy) is perfect. Sometimes it can feel like you and Pup are against the world, that the eyes watching your movements may be a little harsh and unduly critical. That is until you get a pleasant surprise.

Yesterday Piper and I had a package to mail at the Danville post office. Normally we go to our tiny p.o. in Chatham, but today, running errands in "the big city", we stop at their large main post office. We take our place in line, and Piper plops down and takes five. After an already busy morning doing his best effort at Being Good with the therapy dog group at an assisted living home, he is rather tuckered out. A middle-aged couple drops into line behind us. Soon we are chatting about service dogs and all the jobs they do, how far along Piper is in his training and the usual things a PR discusses to interested, friendly people. It does make the time go by. As we talk the line lengthens and stretches out behind us. Every so often, the line moves and Piper obligingly rises up, moves forward by my side, and plops down again.

Piper last weekend at "Dog Days", a sale at a local greenhouse business. Every year I set up a table and tell people about service/guide/therapy dogs. People bring their pets. It is much fun and a great exposure for Piper.

Finally our turn. The clerk behind the counter calls us, and we walk over to the high counter. "Is that a dog you have there with you?" she asks, just a little too sharply I think. As she leans forward she reminds me of a disapproving judge at his bench in court. "Well, yes, he's a service dog in training," I answer. Her eyes narrow. "Do you have a disability?" "No, I don't, he's in training to be a service dog. I am training him." "Well, if you don't have a disability, then he can't be in here. I will go ahead and wait on you this time, but I don't ever want to see you bring a dog in here again."

Oh, groan. It's as if you can see the shades roll down and the shutters slam shut on her face. There is no reasoning with a person like this. Still I make one last feeble attempt. "How can a service dog do his job if he isn't allowed to train in facilities like this?" I ask. But she isn't considering anything. If I had more time, I would ask to speak to her supervisor, but it has already been a long morning, I have more errands to run with Piper and am in no mood for a fight. Since I normally don't come here anyway, why even bother? I pay the postage on the package and turn to leave.

As I start to walk away, I pass the line of people. The line I had so recently stood in. I see their eyes resting on me and my service pup who walks calmly by my side. I head outside, walk Piper along the edges of the parking lot, then give him some water A lady appears and she tells me how sorry she is I got treated that way inside. I guess she heard the whole thing. She is upset and ready to go back in, and wait in line to speak to the supervisor. We talk a little, say good-bye and I thank her for being supportive.

Later that afternoon I get a call. It's the same lady from outside the p.o. She did indeed go back in the building, waited in line and talked to the supervisor. The supervisor said - get this - SEVERAL other people had complained about the way Piper and I were treated! Wow, I thought, it was the people in the line behind me. And they cared enough to stand up for me, Piper and assistance dogs everywhere, when I was too busy and tired to try. How awesome is that?

It makes me take a fresh look at the public:  the anonymous people in line, in the crowd, the ones we think don't notice us. Or maybe we think they watch with a critical eye as we work our service pups with faltering steps up the ladder towards their important future role. Yet in fact this anonymous public often secretly and silently watches with approval, and is surprisingly ready to spring to our defense when the going for us gets tough. You guys at the post office Tuesday morning, I don't know you and I'll probably never see you again, but I just have to say "Thanks" to the people in line behind me.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Summer Magic and Therapy Dogs

As a therapy dog, Wrangell enjoys being surrounded by admiring fans.
It is early June, the beginning of summer. Yellow Lab Wrangell, sporting an orange vest with a Therapy Dogs Inc. patch, walks into one of the rooms at the day facility for the intellectually disabled in Danville, VA. Therapy dog, Prissy, a perky little black Pomeranian smartly dressed in the latest dog fashion and her handler, Betty, join Wrangell and I making the rounds between the tables. Several people sit at tables doing puzzles, drawing and playing games, but the activity stops abruptly as soon as we enter. Most of the people are just a little nervous and prefer to watch the dogs. A few braver ones tentatively touch, talking low, cradling the dogs' heads in their hands, fingering soft velvet ears and coarser fur across their backs.

In one of the game rooms occupied by residents,

far back in the corner slumped behind a large round table, sits a solitary man about thirty years of age. Although the man does not seem to notice the visiting dogs, as I slowly approach with Wrangell, he grasps his lunch bag and becomes agitated. One of the staff turns to him. "Joel, would you like to pet the dog?" Holding onto his lunch sack for dear life, Joel makes an unhappy sound. His tense body signals loud and clear - No, absolutely not. Wrangell and I retreat, and the staff lady gives us a faint smile and shrug. It's OK. Never push a dog on anyone, you do not know what sort of experience they may have had. Better to step back and give things time.

In the photo at right, Wrangell tries out a noise machine at the facility. He listens to the different noises made when he steps on the colored blocks. Fun!

As the summer progresses and our two therapy dogs continue their weekly visits to the facility, we start greeting people by their first names and making genuine friends. Relationships between the residents, staff and the dogs bud and blossom. The rooms fill with smiles and laughter. Over time the dogs learn which ones like to gently rough them up, which like to lightly caress them and with which they need to be ever so still as a mouse. Joel watches from his solitary corner, sheltered behind his big round table. Never have I seen him walk or talk, yet I notice how his head and eyes follow the dogs as they move from person to person. Often he clutches his lunch bag, but not so tightly as before.

Early August and a chorus of greetings, like old friends, meets us as we walk the halls and enter the rooms. As Wrangell and I slowly approach Joel, I can tell this time is different. For once his face is open, inviting. We move closer. Leaning toward the big Lab just a little, Joel raises his hand and lightly touches Wrangell on his head. A pat! He quickly pulls the hand away, flashes a grin, then turns as the staff and I in amazed voices congratulate him for what he has just done. Why am I so surprised to see Joel touch the Lab's head? Haven't I seen before the magic therapy dogs work on people over time?

However the next week things have changed again. When Wrangell and I approach I can tell Joel is not as receptive. Yet he does slide over one chair, coming out of his corner, and crouches over a pegboard puzzle, working the pieces. I imagine it is his way of saying, "I am happy you are here." The next week, the last of August, is our final visit to the facility. Somehow it feels like the final act of a play. We promise our summer friends we will come back over the holidays. Understanding, they nod. Finally we enter Joel's usual room, and make our way to the back corner. Then Joel does a curious thing. Instead of extending his hand, he slowly, laboriously, leans down to Wrangell and offers his face. Wrangell gently licks his cheek. Again Joel offers his face, again the dog licks his cheek. With an exhaled breath we all laugh and exclaim, "Hey, Joel, he kissed you!" With a triumphant grin, Joel rears his upper body, leaning way back. His personal victory dance. Although he cannot talk, it is plain what he is feeling inside. It is magic to behold - the mysterious magic that dogs weave as they touch the hearts of people like Joel - and those nearby who get to witness and celebrate.

Note:  Thank-you to Danville-Pittsylvania County Community Services for giving me permission to post this story and the photos.

Therapy dogs Wrangell and Prissy take a break outside the Danville facility. We joke that the two dogs have all the bases covered. Wrangell is large, yellow, short-haired and male. Prissy is small, dark, long-haired and female!

Brad and Wrangell become friends.
Administrative staff enjoy the therapy dogs as much as the day-goers.

Monday, September 9, 2013

You is Smart...You is Nice...You is Important

The movie "The Help" came out in 2011, based on a book by the same name by Kathryn Stockett. I enjoyed both the movie and the book immensely. It takes place in the Jim Crow South of Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960's, and is one of those stories that has many strong, wonderful characters in it - most virtuous and a few wicked. The main character is a black maid, Aibileen, who works for a family struggling to keep up with the Southern aristocratic "Joneses".

To me one of the marks of a good story are lines said worth remembering, adopting and repeating. Although it has nothing to do with dogs, there is one line in the movie I have held on to as a puppy raiser. It is actually spoken in three scenes in the movie, between Aibileen and her little charge, a chubby, sweet 3-year old white girl named Mae Mobley. Mae Mobley does not have it easy. Having had the little girl while still practically a girl herself, her mother is unhappy, preoccupied and icy towards her daughter. So Mae Mobley turns to the maid Aibileen, who not only takes care of her physical needs, but loves her and gently guides her thru the early stages of life, including fundamentals like potty training and sore throats.

The line is first spoken during a very touching part of the movie, when the maid Aibileen tells Mae Mobley in a very soft, intimate, singsong voice, "You is smart....You is nice....You is important." The little girl solemnly listens and repeats after Aibileen as best she can, " important." Given her young age, you wonder how much of those concepts little Mae can really understand, yet somehow Mae Mobley recognizes the gravity of the words and tries hard to grasp and commit them to memory.

When Piper was a younger puppy he was a double handful of curiosity mixed with a strong helping of independence, and a dash of wildness. To top it off, he was not a napper! There were days when I yearned for a timeout from him, but since my husband was gone on a job and the nearest sitter was miles away, it wasn't going to happen. Sometimes it helped to sit him down in front of me, look into his puppy eyes and recite meaningfully the lines from The Help:  "You is smart...You is nice...You is important." Oddly enough, Piper would listen with great seriousness to the tone of my voice, as if trying to grasp the meaning of my words. Dogs may not know what you say, but they can certainly hear how you say it, thereby getting a handle on your feelings.

Saying those lines was a reminder to me of the importance of what I was doing. By reciting those words and believing in them, I was showing Piper my trust in his ability to fulfill those words. As puppy raisers, I think we all fiercely believe in our puppies and strive with all that we have to see that their smartness, niceness and future importance as service dogs will someday come to pass. We are our puppy's strongest advocates and supporters. Even if our puppies are throwing up or chewing something irreplaceable or embarrassing us in public, we puppy raisers fix or clean it up best we can, forgive, and with unquenchable optimism move on.

These days Piper is a much more well-behaved pup and I am happy with his steady progress. Although I don't need to say the lines out of sheer desperation anymore, I love to recite them to master Piper anyway and it strikes me that they ring with greater clarity as the days go by: "You is smart....You is nice....You is important."