Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Peter Piper....

A few of the Danville Therapy Dog group (Therapy Dogs Inc) dressed in their Christmas regalia. L to R:  Piper, Megan, Bonnie, Maggie and Bolt. Piper is not a registered therapy dog, he just tags along for outings.

As well as raising a puppy for St. Francis Service Dogs, I am also heavily involved in therapy dog work. It started about two years ago when I heard about a nearby therapy dog group that met on Tuesday mornings at nursing/assisted living homes for a hour. Each Tuesday of the month the group, consisting of between 6 and 10 therapy dog teams, went to a different facility. At that time I took my guide puppy, Emmy, and discovered that I enjoyed this work very much, besides its providing a great opportunity for my puppy to train around a variety of well-behaved, "working" dogs, including Irish Setters, dachshunds, Belgian sheepdogs and Pomeranians.

Since then I have taken each of my guide/service pups on therapy dog outings and find that some are natural-born therapy dogs - and some are not. My sweet, loveable guide pup, Emmy, enjoyed the excursions down rabbit-warren hallways and into rooms, but seemed to just be humoring me when it came to interacting with the residents. She would obediently sit, stiffly set her head in their lap in an obligatory fashion, then give me a sideways look as if to say, "Ok, I put my head here. She petted me. Now...can we go?"

In contrast, my over-the-top guide puppy, CeCe, who had such a difficult time with self-control when I took over her raising at the age of 9 months, turned out to be a natural at therapy dog work. Excited about everything, she seemed to intrinsically empathize with the nursing home and rehab residents resting in wheelchairs and beds. Her body would calm and her head sink with a sigh into their laps. Lifting her eyes to gaze up softly, she seemed to be saying "As long as you want me to stay, I will." What! My jaw dropped the first time I saw her do this. Dogs will amaze you.

Piper's "Good Meter" is in the green zone!
Since Piper was a little smidge he has been coming with me, off and on, to Tuesday therapy dogs. Initially his visits consisted of just five minutes of greeting a few therapy dog teams in the lobby. Later as Piper grew, we would walk partway down the main hall, say hello once or twice, then leave. As he got older I had to keep a close eye on what I call his Good Meter. I imagine a meter sticking out of Piper, with a needle and gauge that goes from green (Good Boy) to red (Caution:  Time to Go Now). When he was younger the green area was very narrow indeed, and the needle could quickly rise into the red "Time to Go Now" zone. We would take our cue and head for the exit. Now at 8.5 months, Piper stays in the green Good Boy zone the full 50 minutes or so, walking many halls, navigating tight spaces between tables, beds and chairs in rooms, and passing other therapy dog teams in close quarters. He really enjoys these times in the facilities. However when our visit is done and we gather at a lunch place, an exhausted Piper is happy to sack out under the table.

Now I need to qualify that Piper is NOT a perfect gentleman when he first comes in the facility door. He is Happy! Excited! Ready for Action! Yeah! It is my job to get all that good enthusiasm under control, so we can safely and comfortably interact with the residents and staff alike. So the first few people-visits we hang back. If a person wants to see Piper, then Piper sits politely a few feet away and does some obedience. Amid exclamations of awe and wonder he gets a cookie (he likes that part). When I feel the edge is being worn off his excitement, he moves in closer to a person's side, while I make sure to have my hand under his collar. Thus steadying Piper, the person can then pet for a minute or so. Several greeting sessions later, mixed with obedience, and hall and room navigation, Piper is now at the point where I can relax control a little. He is getting the idea this is all about "easy does it" for which you get lots of attention and treats.

I enjoy therapy dog work on many levels. It is fun and
challenging to work Piper safely in a facility where we are there for the express purpose of brightening someone's day. Also occasionally I find myself caught in a Kodak moment that can oscillate between poignancy and hilarity, as I observe the unique chemical magic between my dog and a strange person. One such moment was this Tuesday.

Piper and I were making the rounds through the home's large exercise room, when I noticed a lady slumped over in her wheelchair. Having just finished her workout, she was waiting to be wheeled back to her room. The woman looked completely done in, her body askew, head down on her chest, eyes closed. Her therapist stepped behind her and straightened her up in her chair. When she opened her eyes, I asked if she'd like to say hello to the dog. She weakly nodded, yes.

Piper came over and sat next to her, his head on a level with her resting arm. She slowly slid her hand over and stroked the top of his head and weakly asked, "What's his name?" I told her his name was Piper, as in Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. She kept stroking him, and then she started the tongue twister:  "Peter Piper..." Yes, I said, that's right, so you know it too. She kept going, very slowly, "...picked a peck of pickled peppers."

As we talked she told me she had a stroke three months ago, back in September. She said it happened in her yard and there was nobody there but the neighbor's dog, whom she often fed biscuits. The dog then alerted people to her plight, which she thinks may have saved her life. As she says this in a low voice she keeps stroking Piper's head and fingering his ears. Piper stayed very still. Before saying goodbye, together we finish the tongue twister:  "Where's the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?" As she showed me her name on her bracelet, asking Piper and I to visit again, I noticed her voice was much stronger, her eyes were bright, she smiled.

First Christmas!
The therapist wrapped a blanket around her shoulders, winked at Piper and I, and wheeled her away. A moment in time. Mr. Piper, I hope you have many, many more of these moments where you charge the batteries of someone who needs you. At 8 months old, you haven't even had your first Christmas or birthday. You have no idea how important someday you could be to someone. You are just beginning your lifelong work. Yet, Peter Piper, Tuesday was an auspicious beginning.

Piper with his dog family:  Hazel (L) and Wrangell (R)

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