Kestrel just knows….

Typically you can be sure that nothing good is happening when you start a therapy dog visit by waiting in the driveway to let the ambulance and fire truck leave the parking lot before you head in to visit at the assisted living. I am still not sure what happened but boy did they need Kestrel today, staff and residents. She got so much patting, and praise, and hugs. We visited all the folks in the lobby queuing up for lunch (highpoint of their day I suspect, the lineup starts around 10:45 for an 11:30 lunch).

Then we headed down to the Harbor unit, for the memory impaired folks. Kestrel dragged me right over to one of her new friends, the man a few weeks ago I thought was asleep and wasn’t going to pester him, but Kestrel insisted in her Kestrel way, and just stood in front of him beaming lab love until he opened his eyes and started patting her. Now every visit we go find Bill and he talks to her, and the staff is really happy to see him interacting. And we made another new friend today, Reg. He’s an older man, seems as though he was very prim and proper at some point in his life, and he’s lost most of his vision. I never know exactly what individual conditions are, but I suspect stroke recovery. Anyway, Reg is always very quiet, and I pretty much have to force the dog on him to the delight of his family and/or visitors, just to get a dog near enough for him to touch. I’m told he really likes dogs, so we always make an attempt.

Today, breakthrough, Kestrel pushed up to his chair, and managed to maneuver between the footrests and the wheels so he could get a hand on her back. He patted her a bit, and she gave him a kiss on the hand, then wiggled and waggled and wagged and was her happy self. We had a few minutes visiting, then the staff person said we were going, Kes and I were headed out the door, and he said “Bye” and raised his hand to wave bye-bye, the folding hand way kids do. The staff member turned to me and gave Kestrel a big pat. Apparently this was a HUGE breakthrough for him. Kestrel just knows..

I had wondered what sort of therapy dog she would make. Hawke seems to have a natural instinct to be empathetic, although she takes too much on herself. Kestrel is so busy and blithe that I thought maybe she’d be the “Shallow Hal” of therapy dogs, just breezing in and out and soaking up the love. Not so, her serious side sees things I miss. Our first interaction with Bill, I saw a man asleep in a chair, not interested in the things going on around him. Kestrel saw a man drawn into himself that just needed a little effort to bring him out. She sat in front of his chair and waited in that intense Kestrel way, till he woke up and started patting her, eventually smiling. I would have walked right by, but she wouldn’t let me. Kestrel just knows….

A Day of Contrasts

A few weeks ago, Hawke and I had a Friday afternoon Rally trial. We raced up to Amherst to compete at the Souhegan KC trial, Hawke’s debut in rally excellent. She took a long, long time to get her rally advanced but after our efforts in APDT rally, I convinced her that really, AKC rally would be just fine.

She did all right. No blazingly high score, a few hits for wide, some slow to respond (its Hawke! she responds when she’s ready) and a few deliberate willing to take the deduction handling moves to be sure Hawke stayed with me and didn’t show untoward interest in the small dog doing Open routines in the neighboring ring. Leg one towards her RE. We got our ribbon, jumped in the car and headed to the library.

We had 4 reluctant readers waiting for Hawke. As the girls settled on the floor around Hawke to read to her and show her pictures, I was taken by the contrast of the day. What a dog, to be willing to compete in a trial, then get rushed off to do what she does best, allow kids to read to her and encourage their efforts.

Its ironic, we get ribbons for competition, often nice green qualifying ribbons, sometimes the lovely colors that come with placements, sometimes we finish a title and get a lovely rosette, or a big title and get a rosette the size of a dinner plate, there aren’t ribbons for the library work. But there are good feelings, seeing those kids forget about how “reading is hard”, “I’m not very good at this” and watching the whole process evolve, the child telling their story, the dog accepting each word with grace, the unconditional love that passes between them. Thanks for reading, thanks for listening, dog licks child, child hugs dog, both are so happy. The handler, me, in the background thinking that although I do enjoy training and competing with the dogs, there is little of that competitive world that feels as good as this reading world.

Good Job Hawke.
on both counts

The right dog for the job

I am a fortunate handler indeed, having 3 working TDI certified dogs, Hawke, Kestrel and Merlin. Hawke, my nearly 10 year old Labrador retriever had been volunteering an assisted living center that also has a Harbor unit for the memory impaired. Hawke had visited there twice a month for about 4 years, but I had noticed that she wasn’t as happy with her assisted living visits as she is with her library visits. Hawke is read to at 5 local libraries and a Montessori school. Hawke loves her library visits, can hardly wait to get there, and is as energetic when she leaves as when she arrives. Clearly, the reading program is as good for Hawke as it is for the children who read to her. Not so much the elderly visits. Hawke is a very sympathetic labrador, if a resident was having a bad day, they could always pour their heart out to her and she would sit and listen patiently, sometimes offering a lick as a way to say “It will all be alright”. She had one special friend, who missed her cocker spaniels so much, she would cry to Hawke, and Hawke would listen carefully, and take her burden. Last summer, I started to notice that Hawke would be drooping, and shuffling in her walk whenever we left the assisted living, and I started to wonder if perhaps she is too sympathetic and takes on too much from the residents.

In the meanwhile, Kestrel, at age 7 has started to FINALLY settle down. She tends to be a very busy labrador, but a very upbeat and cheerful one as well. Kestrel passed her TDI test with flying colors, she’s been a CGC since she was 8 months old, so I knew she would have no issues, except perhaps excessive happiness, with therapy dog exam. The evaluator thought she would make a lovely therapy dog, and she was right.

Kestrel’s first visit to the assisted living was five months ago. We arrive at 11am, a great time as there are many residents in the lobby queing up for lunch. So many are delighted to see her, and hear about her being Hawke’s sister. She accepts lots of pats, smiles and wags at everyone she meets in the lobby. We hear about one woman’s dog, who was a housemaster dog named Marcus Aurelius. One woman I hadn’t met before told me she had dogs all her life and was sure she’d never get to pet a dog again, she was delighted with Kestrel. We sometimes head to the second floor lounge where we visit with the card playing ladies, they always set down their cards to pat Kestrel. The staff is all smiles to see Kestrel’s happiness.

We typically pick up a key for the Harbor unit to go visit the folks there. One time, a small group sitting in the living room was working on listing names of songs, they were so glad to be interrupted to pet Kestrel. Kestrel was so good, she made her way to each person that wanted to pet her and sat down to receive pats. Her tail never stops wagging, and when we leave a room everyone is smiling. Sometimes she can get them all laughing, such as the day she wagged her tail so hard one woman’s cane fell over, well all the harbor folks thought that was just delightful and they laughed and laughed. One woman wants to know how old she is, another wants to know exactly what is a Kestrel (a small falcon, and the joke in our house is that Kestrel is a little Hawke). There is always someone who asks if she’s cuban (confusing Castro with Kestrel), or why is she named after motor oil (Castrol v. Kestrel) One woman told us about her black lab that her daughter has now and wanted to know if we know them. (I do, she’s a member of our lab club) When ever we leave, all the Harbor residents are smiling.

As a handler, I find it interesting that not only do these two dogs have very different personalities at home, their visiting personalities are very different as well. Hawke is more subdued, and will sit and listen to a sad story and take it all on herself. She does prefer to try and visit everyone so I have to be vigilant about the folks that don’t really care for big black dogs. If I don’t take control, Hawke would like to insist that everyone should meet the big black dog. Hawke is also very good at finding the person who really needs a little extra loving on that particular day.

Kestrel on the other hand is very upbeat and lively, her tail never stops wagging, and she smiles all the time while visiting. She has a second sense about who doesn’t care for dogs and will give them a glance but doesn’t feel the need to visit them. She’s very good at figuring out who really wants to pet her and she’s very good at getting everyone smiling, staff and residents alike. She’s almost dismissive of the folks who aren’t interested in dogs, a great quality in a therapy dog visiting an assisted living facility.

After Kestrel’s great success on her first few visits, she is now the elder visiting dog for Hawke is officially retired from elder visits. Hawke will continue to be the reading dog for her libraries and schools, as that is the volunteer job that rewards her the most. All three of my dogs are well suited to this work, but as a handler, I have to also keep my dog’s best interests at heart. Just as some people are cut out for different types of volunteer jobs, its important to remember that our dogs have personalities too, and what might be the perfect visiting situation for one, might not be perfect for a different dog.

If you are thinking of working with your dog as a therapy dog, think deeply on what kinds of situations will be interesting or rewarding to you. Love kids? children’s hospitals, reading dog, school visits might be just your thing. Want to help in a hospital setting, many take therapy dogs. Hate the thought of nursing homes but want to help the elderly? look for an assisted living, a senior center or adult day care. There are as many interesting places to visit with a therapy dog as there are teams willing to visit. Take your dog into consideration, their personalities can be quite varied and what delights one dog may overstimulate or depress another. Hawke is too empathetic for elder visits, but is energized by visiting the children who read to her. Kestrel is a busy, bouncy dog, but never jumps up on staff or patients, is as if she knows the rules are different, and she’s never brought down by an elder visit. I doubt she’d ever be able to sit still while a child read to her. Merlin is just learning his therapy dog work, and his few library ventures have been very good, he’s a happy boy but very calm, and happy to just sit while a child pats him. Know your dog and find the best venue for you both. Its great volunteer work, and another way to have a special connection with your dog.