Every dog is different and not all can be expected to do the same work or react to things the same way so when the idea of one of my dogs becoming a St John Ambulance Therapy Dog was sugested to me, there was one obvious choice. The Boy. He is so laid back, loves people, is engaging, affectionate, approachable, handsome and charming. He is the perfect Therapy Dog. He may not know a lot of tricks (any), may have to think about things a little longer than most, couldn't catch a treat to save his life, and fusses and whines if the cat is in his spot but he does have important traits that make him extra special. He is almost bombproof because of his dog show experience and will follow me through any door, no matter where it leads. He is curious, interested, food motivated but not manic, and he listens to my cues to back off if required.
To be a Therapy Dog requires all the above things and although you might be certain your dog is capable of doing therapy, it is not necessarily for them. It doesn't require formal obedience, it requires manners, which are on a different level than being able to sit or down when told. Dogs who are trained in the rigid manner of obedience tend to look to their owners for cues in all situations, and however impressive it is to have a dog whose butt hits the ground in a microsecond, while looking for these cues, it is not engaging the people around it. Obedience dogs are taught to look at their owners while filtering extraneous activity and noise and what a Therapy Dog does is look for and interact with the extraneous because that is its job.
You may also have a dog that is bombproof, this would normally be middle aged to older dogs who have seen a lot in life. Bombproof is great unless it means comatose. There are lots of dogs who don't react to things not because they know there is no threat, but because they don't care. It's hard to strike a balance with a dog that doesn't freak out when something strange comes along (like a squeaky wheelchair), or an unexpected event (like an hospital code or a food tray dropped) with the ability to recover and re-engage after such an event. I have seen dogs who barely react to things like that which is great, but they also barely react to anything else in life, much less the people they are supposed to be visiting. Some dogs love people but can't handle the noise or distractions or allow stress to filter in and they can't focus for very long. There is a delicate balance and it's not easily found.
Raimi is such a balance; because he is bombproof and still engages people, he is a picture perfect Therapy Boy.
So yesterday we made the long drive to Halifax for him to be evaluated. He was put through several exercises that involved common experiences he might have in a hospital or nursing home and he passed each with flying colors. His clear favorite, which I hear is one of the most stressful for some dogs, was the 'crowd swarm' where several people converge on the dog with exuberant praise. He just about died from joy when all these people started calling his name and petting him, he didn't know where to turn and lick first. It was adorable and my heart swelled to see him soaking in the attention just as I'd predicted.
In between tests, while we waited for the other dogs to be evaluated, he was completely relaxed, lay next to me or looked for treats and showed almost no stress. I knew the evaluators were also watching the dogs while they waited, not just while they were being tested, to see how they were handling this unusual situation, other dogs, smells, people, and activity. Boy was his typical self - relaxed, calm, alert when needed and of course, the handsomest boy in class.
The last test is designed to be the most stressful and throws a lot of things at the dogs at once. Boy was curious about but not upset by the exuberant woman in the wheelchair, gently took the treats she offered and when the 'Code Blue' occurred with running people and a dish dropped he let out a woof, then a couple smaller woofs, and then re-engaged the wheelchair treat lady. They are looking for a startle reaction and recovery time and although he reacted and was concerned, he easily recovered and carried on with his 'visit'. And that was that!
We passed with flying colors and the evaluator said he was perfect for therapy work, when could we start? As soon as they have a facility for us to visit, we will make arrangements to go. I am looking forward to this extra special time with Boy since the girls all have their respective Championships to work on (Canadian for Cora, CFC for Leeloo and USA for Esme) and they will get extra attention for those. Boy and I needed a 'thing' and this seemed to fit the bill perfectly. We find out in the next few days what facility we are going to and hopefully in the next week or two we can make our first visit. So here's to The Boy and me, a newly minted St John Ambulance Therapy Dog Team.