Years ago a friend and I spoke about doing therapy dog work with her dog (Bonny) and my dog (KD) but because it seemed like they had to have a Bronze Canine Good Citizen, we left it and despite my dogs both getting that, I forgot about it. Last year, I took the plunge and scheduled my evaluation for Hayley. I figured she would be the better therapy dog because she loves hugs and anyone who knows her knows she is a cuddle bug!!
In February, Hayley passed her evaluation, I did my observer visits and Hayley had the one visit to Teddy Bear clinic which we found was not suitable for her. Since then, I have learnt that she prefers older people (although kids in prams are very cool for her) and will give anyone who decides to sit on the floor a massive hug. She will have her chance to hug humans as a therapy dog soon.
Since then, KD and Bonny had their chance to have their evaluations. Sadly, both dogs they have a few bad habits that need sorting before they can join forces with this great cause. But, watch this space: the dynamic duo are coming to bring smiles!!
So, what are “therapy dogs” and why do I do this work in the tiny bit of free time I have? A therapy dog is basically a dog that has the instinct to give comfort, happiness and to provide affection to people in various situations. They go into various situations such as rehab clinics, hospitals, old age homes, orphanages, schools and more! If you look at America, therapy dogs are also used in courts and also in times of major disasters to comfort people. The dogs are all handled by their owners or other qualified handlers and all these people give of their time as volunteers. These dogs are not professional working dogs but are special dogs who are loved by their families and have the temperament to help others.
In the time that I have been a part of Top Dogs, I have experienced such joy and seen just what these teams do. I have been privileged to visit an orphanage with the dogs where I have seen kids’ faces light up as their favourite dog arrive. These kids are so eager to interact with “their” dog that they almost forget that it is reading to the dogs time! Each time I visited, I saw a change in the kids. They became more confident and their reading improved. Each time, I saw how the handlers of the dogs patiently assisted the kids with their reading and how the dogs calmly let the children read to them and cuddle them. The dogs are amazing how they do not judge or criticize a mis-read word or sentence, they are just eager to have the kids tell them a story!! I can’t wait for KD to pass his evaluation as this is a visit that he will love – an hour of tummy tickles and someone reading to him!!
The other visit that I have become involved in is Teddy Bear Clinic. [This is where children are prepared for giving evidence in court, in cases of abuse etc] This visit has made me human and despite the fact that I do not have a dog that is suitable for this visit, I feel the need to be involved with this one. These kids are my absolute heroes – they are facing things bigger than most of us will ever face and are brave enough to do so. They have spoken out and are standing up for themselves. I am happy to be a part of the team that is helping them on this journey.
On these visits, we meet outside and do the usual meet and greet and the briefing by our visit leader. The dogs then go upstairs and their blankets are put down and they wait for the kids. The emotional tension from these kids is insane but they immediately start interacting with the dogs and the tension eases. The kids interact with the dogs by brushing them, stroking them and even get to go walk around with the dogs. At the last visit, an observer told me how she noticed a special moment between a child and a dog where the child and dog connected and you could almost see the kid telling the dog without words what they had been through and the dog almost telling the kid it would be ok. At the same visit, I watched a handler approach a young girl who had been standing on the side lines for a while. The handler calmly asked the girl if she would like to touch the dog, the girl bent down and cuddled the dog. It was so heart-warming watching this young girl interact with this dog after seeing how reserved she was.
So why do I keep returning to Teddy Bear Clinic even though I am not working with my dog there? I feel that somehow this visit is where I need to be and I need to be there without a dog so for now I go as the photographer where I get to journal the experience through my lens in the hope that I catch a glimpse of what we experience when there. This visit has caught me on a level where I want to help and I feel that being a part of the very special Top Dogs team, I can maybe make a tiny bit of difference.
After the last visit to Teddy Bear Clinic, I totally get what the dogs are doing. From an outward appearance, the dogs are just being cuddled but in reality, these dogs are connecting with the people they interact with on a far deeper level. Remember: dogs have way better senses than we do so they smell, see and hear way more than we are able to. They can tell the story of the old lady who has a smile but inside she is sad, lonely or sick. They can tell the tale of the child who is broken emotionally and is trying so hard to right wrongs yet is giggling with her friends. They can tell that a child who to us may not seem normal from outward appearances, actually is pretty normal on the inside. Dogs know our deepest secretsthat we may not even know. In fact, I remember a friend telling me that her dog kept jumping up at her and wanting to sit with her, later it was discovered that this friend had cancer. Dogs are that amazing and we just have to listen to them and to allow them into our world and let them help us and others.
So, I will continue to work with the amazing team that I have found and I will keep telling everyone about the work these dogs do. To all the Top Dogs handlers and dogs (be it qualified, probationary or observer): thank you for the work you do. You are all amazing.