THE MOMENTOUS NEWS ARRIVED LAST EVENING. Now our lives will change – especially Misty’s life.
Officially, Misty is what’s known as a ”Golden X” but as far as I’m concerned, Misty is a quintessential Canadian – of mixed ancestry (a locally renowned ...um... romantically inclined Golden Retriever sire and what I’d call a West Prince Girl, a little lady from the West Point area of Prince Edward Island). When Misty was 9 months old, I was vacationing in PEI and it quickly became obvious that she should return to the Toronto area of Ontario with me (or continue to run loose on the TransCanada Highway and meet the same fate as so many who preceded her). Misty’s first owner cared enough that she agreed Misty could join our family.
And the rest, as they say, is dog-owning history: hours of beginner, intermediate and advanced obedience classes with all their sits-stays-downs- and that most useful of commands for occasions when you find gooey kleenexes on the sidewalk – “LEAVE IT!” Obedience was followed by the revved-up high jinx of Agility classes where she quickly learned to fly onto teeter-totters and rip through tubes, poles, hanging tires and other challenges on the course. Then there have been all those arm-and-mind-numbing hours of ball throwing – preferably tennis balls, perhaps because they are small enough for her to snatch out of the air, midflight. Of course, there’s also been the usual rituals of grooming and teeth brushing (she still chomps the toothbrush, dripping as it is, with chicken flavoured toothpaste – ick!); the classes she’s attended and runs enjoyed with the ladies at the Running Room; ipecac for her and her brother, a Brittany Spaniel (how predictable, I know, I know), for the day they collaborated and got into the irresistible bait in some ant traps. Yes, until now it’s been all the usual stuff...
Last night, however, the earth turned. Life presented Misty and me with new direction: we received the email that contained our assignment as a new Therapy Dog team.
On August 19th we went to a large dog training facility that had wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, lots of dog toys (oh yes, there were tennis balls), plates piled with cookies and about nine other pairs of dogs and owners. Interestingly, all of the dogs being evaluated were “rescues”. We’d all come for that very special examination to determine if Misty had the right stuff to qualify as a Therapy Dog.
Over the next several hours we were all put through many tests of varying sophistication. The first test was for me: had I brought a poop bag? Indeed, I had – it was even citrus scented. Then, one-by-one, each dog-human duo was summoned to the middle of the arena by white-coated examiners (perhaps to resemble health care professionals?) for the manoeuvres that would test the temperament of the dog and equally, the ability of the handler. There was touching of canine ears, mouths and feet; sudden whirls-about with loud salutations and hands thrust out in greeting over top of the dog; requirements to walk your dog past all the other dogs then over to a plate of cookies. “LEAVE IT!” commanded (followed by silent, fervent hope: PLEASE? O PLEASE!) Misty was stellar at leaving the cookies, but then came the heap of dog toys and... the dreaded three tennis balls... We were first up. “Oh no!”, I thought as Misty tugged me toward the temptations. She dove at a ball and when I asked her to “Give”, she did, backing up on her leash, waiting for the long throw. I simply placed the ball back in the pile and ever the optimist, Misty promptly picked up the ball, placed it in my hand and once again, looked expectant. Our fellow examinees were chuckling – but not too hard – they knew their turns were coming. I placed the ball back on the pile and led – well, more pulled, Misty away.
When it came to the time for a fresh air break for the dogs, we humans led our prospective therapy dogs outside, using great care to keep them well apart, lest there be an unfortunate incident of conduct unbecoming a Therapist. There was none. Dogs were emptied, poop bags filled, and back in we filed for the next trials.
The next set of tests were more complicated, involving bringing the dogs into proximity with each other, leading each dog through a crowd of milling volunteers, and confronting the dogs with people in strange hats (hmmm, strikingly like those worn by people who deliver mail and pamphlets to your door) and even a young person with plush toys. All the dogs seemed to do well with this (funny how we all rooted for each other’s dog. By the end of the day, all the humans seemed to have bonded, while the dogs sorted themselves into mini-packs of “like” – those who were playful, those who just wanted to cuddle their humans, those who sniffed, looking for crumbs... it seemed unbearable, heart-breaking to imagine any duo failing the exam!)
When it came to approaching volunteers in wheelchairs, walkers, one dressed in a hospital gown behaving as though she was suffering with dementia and one on crutches feigning grumpiness, Misty was brilliant. She gently licked the woman in the hospital gown, whose behaviour was so unfamiliar and strange. The man who had the unenviable job of lifting his crutch and saying “Go away, I don’t like dogs”, seemed as traumatized as one of the poor young dogs who seemed crushed with the rebuff. “How come I got this role?” he wailed.... “I love dogs!” He made a special effort to make nice and friendly with all the dogs at the end of the day.
After the test where an examiner in a wheelchair offered each dog a treat –slowly, everso slowly -- undoubtedly to ensure she’d still have all her fingers at the end of the exercise – the examination was over. Apparently the result was unusual – all the dogs (and their humans) were successful. Our group relief was palpable... dealing with any dog’s failure seemed just too much to imagine, even in this short time of knowing each other. We headed home, triumphant, and Misty was so exhausted she all but passed out.
What followed was providing our Criminal Records Check (for Vulnerable Sector settings) while our examiners conducted telephone interviews with each of our three reference persons (for Misty and I it was our vet, dog school instructor and a neighbour). That part must have proceeded alright, because soon after I received an email asking my size for my “uniform” – a white, golf tee shirt, with badge identifying me as being with Therapeutic Paws of Canada.
And then it came. The email with our assignment: Misty and I will be visiting the Palliative Care Unit of a local hospital. It’s the kind of thing that makes you believe in Destiny. This is work Misty was born to do. It’s why she didn’t die running loose on a highway or after ingesting an ant trap... this little soul, whom I named for the enchanting mist that rises from the ocean’s morning waters at her birthplace. Misty’s heart and face are filled with a soft, embracing love. Her job will be to love those she encounters in the PCU. My job will be to let you know about her journey.
HELP! There is a shortage of Therapy Dogs and a long list of facilities waiting for them. If you think you are living with a potential canine therapist, if you'd like to learn more about programs that benefit from the love of Therapy Dogs, OR if you'd like to support or volunteer, please visit the website for Therapeutic Paws of Canada @www.tpoc.ca