Music booms from the ghetto blaster and instructors/ dog trainers, Lynda and Gillian, laugh (well, hoot, actually) and call out the dance steps: “SHASTA DAISY AROUND YOUR LEGS – STAY YOUR DOG – TWO STEPS TO THE RIGHT… OH, SHOOT, I FORGOT THE SPIN! SPIN ONCE, THEN ABOUT TURN…”
The “classroom” at the Who’s Walking Who Dog Training Centre in Ajax, Ontario, is a large, open space with agility equipment pushed out to its margins. For this class, “Freestyle Dance”, the room is overtaken a seeming herd of Bernese Mountain Dogs -- 5 or 6 goofs with their happy grins and great, sweeping tails.
Delaney, now 15 months old, appears to love Dog School. She’s already completed Puppy School, Basic Obedience and a course on working off-leash. She especially loved Tricks class (you should see her “take a bow” – very stylish -- and she loves showing how clever she is) but the biggest hit so far seems to be this Freestyle Dance class. I’m uncertain if it’s because there’s a lot more action involved (so satisfying to her inner working dog energies) or because of Brady – the biggest Bernese in the class… gotta admit, I’m pretty attracted to him, too: handsome, smart, irresistibly silly – what’s not to adore?
Preparation for work as a Therapy Dog happens with each interaction, every task. As we enter into the classroom (how is it we’re always last through the doors?), there’s a lot of bouncy energy with the shaggy Bernese charging at each other, getting tangled in each other’s leashes, play growling. Delaney seems a little unsure of herself, taking a few seconds to assess the room and its boisterous occupants before she steps in, looking for Brady. She begins to play gently with the two other non-Bernezies... a bright hunter-pointer – the Dutch equivalent of a Munsterlander, and a little guy who looks like a wide-ish Jack Russell from the rear and sort of Beagle-y from the front – but Wow! He does a dynamite “Back-up” – shooting back quickly (and straight, no curly paths –that’s real talent!).
The dog play at the beginning of each lesson helps develop Delaney’s confidence interacting with dogs and people in times of high excitement, but also helps her dealing with multiple-cue situations, all the while having to heed my signals and corrections. Why is this important for a Therapy Dog? Misty and I routinely encounter knots of people, including small children, especially near the entrance of the hospital. Delaney must learn to let her sweetness and approachability shine through without becoming overly-excited or inattentive to my instructions. It’s all about The Love but served up with tenderness and good manners. From the way I see Delaney rearing up on her hind legs to greet Gillian, (an instant fail on a Therapy Dog examination) I’m reminded of the work we have yet to do...
We’re instructed on the next steps of the dance routine. It’s getting more complicated and once the music is added, tempo becomes another challenge. I’d love to be watching the Berneses doing figure eight movements around their handlers’ legs (how can such big dogs go under their short owners’ legs?) but in the hospital and in dance class, all my attention must stay on Delaney.
Delaney and I definitely are not Fred(die) and Ginger, but we’re trying hard and I'm laughing harder. As we step, twist, stop, turn, we’re in close proximity to several others who also are backing, side-stepping, spinning (no point pretending here – I don’t think any of us are in tempo – “forget it, just keep moving!” Gillian shouts above the fray, “Keep moving!”) The Therapy Dog + Handler challenges in this exercise are multiple: make sure your dog moves out of the way of other dogs and people – don’t wait for them to move away from you -- and neither of you should be distracted by the noise, excitement and loud music – just keep your focus on each other. Delaney must listen to me, “get” what I’m trying to convey in the moment, and respond immediately with the correct shift in her attention, or movement of her body – exactly what happens when Misty and I are on the Palliative Care Unit, negotiating our way around wheelchairs, frail people teetering with walkers and visitors moving down the hallways.
The other learning is for me. Gillian’s sharp eyes have caught that the way I handle the leash causes unpleasantness for Delaney. After all the dog work I’ve done with the multiple mutts in the decades of my life, it’s been humbling to learn that Delaney has a look of consternation when I pull on her leash – she’s sensitive and that is a plus for the work ahead of her – but a real challenge for me to change my long established habits. I’m having to relearn the way I get Delaney’s attention and lucky to be in a place where I can get lots of coaching and support from our expert instructors.
My other important lesson was that I needed to “up” the caliber of my dog snacks. Delaney was looking unmotivated toward the end of our first class – that is, until Lynda came along with her Magic Snack Sac – “magic” because of what she could coax out of Delaney. “Hey, what’s in your pack?” I was anxious to know what was more tempting than the dehydrated liver I’d brought.
She held forth her hand. “Oh, roast beef, wieners....” She went on. Delaney followed her every move. Every syllable.
The next week, I had chopped, roasted turkey wieners and tiny cubes of cheese. Cheddar. Medium. It worked. Delaney was very eager to do exactly as I asked (after which, she had a powerful thirst and then all but collapsed onto the back seat on the way home.)
The path to that Big Day when Delaney does her examinations to become certified as a Therapy Dog is a long way away. We’ve got our work to do – but that work also is our shared fun. With each moment we experience at opposite ends of a leash, our relationship deepens. Our Story grows.
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AND NOW FOR THE MISTY UPDATE: As of Boxing Day, Misty will be 6 weeks post-op. Her incision is well healed and her “chicken leg” is now covered with soft peach-coloured fuzz. She’s been running around the back yard – but there’s no way the ball has been thrown for her and we haven`t returned to the dog park yet. So: Dr. Jackie has approved Misty`s return to work. We’ll be visiting the Palliative Care Unit on Christmas Day! Of critical importance, Misty’s going in to be groomed on December 23rd – Are you ready for that, Janet? You’ll have your work cut out for you!