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The Right Stuff: Every Dog Has Her Place
Pippy Tay didn’t look much like a purebred Border Collie; I’d bet money that most shelters would have described her as a BC/Labrador cross. She was big, almost 60 pounds, as long as a table, and had a large, square head that had Labrador written all over it.
But she was a Border Collie, the daughter of one of the top trial dogs in the country, and she had an outrun around sheep to break your heart. Early in her training I visited a handler’s farm in Iowa, to get a lesson and work her in a new area. Unlike my little farm, the land was perfect for long outruns, where you could send your dog from the top of a rise, watch them run a semi-circle through a sweeping valley below, and gather the sheep from as far away as you wanted. We trudged to the top of the hill, and Doug said: “Go ahead, send her after those sheep.”
What?! The small flock was at least 300 yards away. Pippy had never done an outrun longer than 75 yards. The difference is huge, bigger than you can imagine until you stand in one spot and watch your dog get smaller and smaller, disappearing into the size of a dark pencil point, running a semi-circle to get behind a fuzzy fluff of sheep. I said as much, not wanting to set Pip up to fail, but Doug encouraged me, said “Go ahead, just give it a try. What could happen?”
“Come Bye” I whispered, and Pippy was gone, ten yards away before I could even register her movement. We watched her streak down the face of the hill, widen out as she got within a hundred yards of the sheep, and circle behind them, far enough away to avoid disturbing them until she found the perfect balance point to control the sheep. She stopped, collected the flock (”the lift”) and walked them in a perfect line back to me. It was a perfect outrun, a glorious outrun, an outrun you’d expect of a older, wiser dog. It was a perfect fetch, slow and quiet and perfectly timed. I didn’t do much of anything, except stand in place, jaw open, heart swelling, blown away by my young dog and her ability. Doug didn’t say much, maybe “Wow.” I think he paid me the best compliment you’ll ever hear from a professional handler. “What did you say the breeding was on that dog?”
A year later, Pip and I were competing in a trial in Illinois, when the sheep took one look at her, turned to face her, ducked their heads like cartoon animals and attacked her. She was literally chased across the field, the audience howling derision in the stands. I truly believe she understood, if not that others were laughing at her, at least that she had been beaten by the sheep. I called her off, and she and I walked, heads hanging, off the field together. That night, I made her a promise to never, ever do that to her again.
The truth is, Pip was never meant to work difficult sheep or compete in trials. Her perfect outruns were a curse to us both, because they overshadowed her lack of power, her fear of being hurt and her total dislike of confrontations. For over a year I tried to make her something she wasn’t, and I still feel a pang of guilt when I remember how fearful she’d be when sheep turned to confront her.
But Pippy turned into one of the most valuable dogs I’ve ever had. Her gentle nature and distaste of confrontation became one of my greatest professional assets. For over ten years Pip worked dog-dog aggression cases with me. She was invaluable and unflappable. She’d lay down 20 yards away from defensively aggressive dogs, and slowly and gradually, reading them perfectly, she’d inch her way toward them. Within minutes they’d be licking her muzzle, or play bowing and tearing around the pen with her, their owners with tears in their eyes because their dog had never played with another before.
Pip taught me so much, and was such a help when I’d work with clients who wanted to compete in agility, but had dogs who hated crowds, or wanted their dogs to visit nursing homes, when the dogs were shy and afraid of strangers. Oh yes yes, training and conditioning can do so much, but it’s so important to know who are dogs are, what they are capable of, and what they are not. It’s the difference between swimming upstream, or down. I’m sure this has happened to many of you: I’d love to hear your stories.
If you want to see one of the best examples of this I’ve ever seen, go to the link below. It was sent by one of our colleagues in the comments section of the last blog (thank you Pike!). If you don’t get an oxytocin rush from watching it, I suggest therapy. . .
Meanwhile, back on the farm: Zero degrees (Farenheit) today. Brrrr. We missed the last 16 inch snow storm that hit Minnesota, but got it as rain instead. That’s not so great…. rain on top of lots of snow turns it into ice when it gets cold again, so there’s a hard layer of ice on top of everything. It’s thick enough to keep Lassie from breaking through for about 9 out of every 10 steps. Then she sinks down to her pink, naked belly (shaved from a recent ultrasound, things aren’t quite right in the liver department) but forges ahead, preferring into come up the hill with us rather than be left home alone.
Here’s my Pippy Tay, bless her heart. I lost her about 2 1/2 years ago (could it really have been that long?)
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Animal Assisted Therapy; Come say Hi in Naples, Fla!
I’ve loved our discussion about the “Right Stuff,” and how every dog has its own talents. I think that is never more true than when asking a dog to do Animal Assisted Therapy. AAT is on my mind now, because I’ve just finished working on a speech I’ll be doing in Naples, Florida to raise funds for a worthwhile cause, The Brody Project. I’ll be dining with donors this Wednesday, Jan 6, and speaking on Thursday, Jan 7th on “The Power of Pets.” The Brody Project does AAT at Moorings Park Continuing Care Retirement Community and if you are in the area, I’d love it if you came up and said hi. I also just finished a chapter for a new book by Audrey Fine, the silver-back of AAT, on what caretakers of assistance dogs need to know.
And here’s the bottom line: They need to know if their dog is truly and inherently suited for assistance work. I had a client come to me last year to help turn his neophobic dog into a therapy dog, when the dog was silently yelling to me that he couldn’t, he just couldn’t . . . “oh please please don’t make me go to that scary, smelly place again. . .”
There are many traits that make a good therapy dog, but here are the two that stand out to me:
1) Inherently social–the kind of dog that seems to think it’s a miracle that there is an endless supply of people in the world. I’ve mentioned before that when Willie sees a new person (as long as it’s not a loud, tall, unfamiliar male who runs up and looms over him), I swear he is thinking: “LOOK! There’s ANOTHER one! Oh boy, another person! Where do they all come from?” I don’t mean that the dog needs to be beside himself with excitement like Willie is (see #2 below), but you just can’t train dogs to deeply care about people they’ve never met if they don’t feel that way naturally.
2) Non-reactive and relatively calm–Thus, cross Willie off the list. Will would not be a good candidate now, because he is so enthusiastic about greeting new people. Oh, he keeps his butt on the ground (with great effort), but when people enter the house he is literally beside himself with joy, and can barely contain himself. I imagine, if he were in a hospital setting, that oxygen and IV lines would end up flying around the room, potentially joined by a previously immobile patient after being mauled by four overly enthusiastic paws and one very pink tongue.
However, Will may be the perfect dog when he is older. That’s something that Audrey and I talked about a lot for his book, that so many dogs are tested (and failed) at two years of age or so, when most dogs do best after they have aged and matured a bit. Many dogs need time and maturity to do grown up work, which doesn’t seem surprising when you think of it. How grown up are people anyway when we are twenty years old? Very grown up in some cases, but in others, not so much. No matter who you were when you were twenty, did you have the same level of balance and maturity at twenty that you did at forty? Fifty? Sixty? (Okay, lots of you are dropping out, but at 61, I felt compelled to continue listing the decades!)
I will never forget sitting in the International Dog Trials in Scotland many years ago, and noticing that the dogs seemed surprisingly old for such athletic work. I later figured out that the average age of the dogs in the trial (the olympics of herding competitions) was 7.5 years of age. Some dogs ran at age nine. Dressage horses don’t compete seriously until they are at least five or six years of age (someone correct me on this, or add to it… I’m estimating), and many of them aren’t considered even close to fully trained until they are over ten.
I’m curious about your experiences. Several of you commented on my last post about your dogs becoming therapy dogs after being pulled from another activity. How old were they when you started? And what do YOU think is required in a good therapy dog?
FYI, one of my dreams for when I retire is to do animal assisted therapy or animal assisted activities, whether it be working with a medical team in a hospital-like setting, or getting involved in the Reading to a Dog project. But, it’ll have to wait. Until then, I’ll look forward to your comments and write from Florida.
Meanwhile, back on the farm, it’s cold cold cold. Minus 8 F yesterday morning. That’s nothing for Fairbanks, I know, but for us Wisconsinites it’s cold. Highs in the low teens all weekend, so Lassie goes out to pee or poop, and will only do one at a time. She eliminates whatever needs to leave her body first, and then trots purposefully into the garage, and goes back into the house. Her belly is shaved and I worry her feet will frost bite, so I don’t hesitate to put her inside.
But Willie still loves to be out, and so we snow shoe up the hill and play fetch in the deep snow. It is an inexpressible joy to be able to play frisbee or “fetch the thrown stick” with Willie now. We can because the deep snow insulates the impact when he lands or short stops, so it doesn’t seem to bother his shoulder as it does otherwise. What heaven for us both. Here’s a photo Jim took a few days ago when we were playing in the orchard pasture up the hill behind the house.