Archives for February 21, 2012

Dog Power: Tales of a Therapy Dog

 

Tavish's therapy dog work
The journey that is Tavish is ever-evolving. Though his muzzle now sports a few flecks of gray, people still ask the age of our “puppy.”  He has traded living in northern New England for the mid-Atlantic region. Now that his “backyard” includes the nation’s capital, the Old Dominion, the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay, Tavish’s intrepid pup escapades have grown to encompass national museums, monuments and Civil War sites. He has new regulars that he sees on his walks. There’s the mom with the young toddler who screeches in delight each and every time he passes. The guy who uses the loop road at the park to practice racing in his custom wheelchair and always coasts to a stop long enough to give Tavish a neck rub. Then there are the more spontaneous encounters like the random callouts from passersby of “Hey, pointer dog!” or “Vizsla!”  A banjo player on the boardwalk abruptly shifts his tune to “Hound Dog Blues” when Tavish strolls past. A homeless man approaches to pat Tavish on the head, says he’s sorry he doesn’t have a Milk-Bone® to give him, thanks Tavish for his time, and tells us to “have a blessed day.”

We’ve always thought that Tavish is special, but it has also become clear over the years that Tavish’s natural capacity for making other people happy is a gift that is easy to share.  And so in 2011, Tavish earned his official AKC Therapy Dog certification by volunteering with children and the elderly through a Washington DC-based organization that specializes in animal-assisted therapy.  He regularly visits seven different venues that include nursing homes, a center for emotionally-troubled youth, and several libraries. With the latter, children read aloud to Tavish to build their literacy skills, improve self-confidence, and foster enjoyment of reading. Many young readers participate simply for the novelty of reading to a dog that listens non-judgmentally. Others are recent immigrants and first-generation English speakers. Some are dyslexic or visit speech therapists. Still others are trying to overcome a fear of dogs.

So in volunteering, Tavish thus becomes an ambassador not only for his breed but also for dogs in general, and an outing with him typically involves fielding numerous questions about his traits, habits, and care. Within his first year of volunteering, Tavish had literally touched more than 200 lives: people of all ages, nationalities and creeds. Occasionally they speak foreign languages or are unable to speak at all.  Sometimes they are shy, lonely, or infirm. And so, Tavish’s story now intersects with many others’, often in the most astonishing of ways. Here are just a few:

Nine-year-old Patrick* has just met Tavish at the library. Seems like a good time to show off a new trick in Tavish’s repertoire:  balancing a biscuit on his nose for an instant before flicking it up and catching it in a lightning-quick blur. Tavish does it on cue, eliciting a hushed, “That’s AWESOME” from Patrick, who then reads Tavish a storybook and departs contented. Minutes later, Patrick returns with the librarian in tow. “I hate to interrupt,” she says, “But Patrick would like to know if it’d be all right to give Tavish a hug.”

Absolutely. 

It’s unclear how long it has been since the woman in the nursing home has been able to speak coherently, her body weakened by ailments both visible and unseen. Much of her day is spent seated in a common area with other residents, where she impassively watches whatever film classic happens to be showing on the big screen TV. Yet the arrival of Tavish brings about a startling transformation. Her eyes focus. Her placid, smooth features become animated. And with arms outstretched, she begins to weep. While disarming to those around her, Tavish takes it in stride and approaches her chair. In a rising crescendo she moans, “Ohhhhhhhh,” and buries her hands into Tavish’s fur, grinning broadly, fat tears streaming down her cheeks.

Gulp.

The boy is polite and has a winsome smile. His name is Milo*. Of all the visiting dogs gathered in the courtyard at this center for troubled youth, Tavish is the one who has instantly commanded Milo’s attention. Over the course of several visits, Milo gets to know Tavish pretty well, works on commands with him, and even introduces Tavish to some of the younger kids and patiently instructs them on how best to walk him. One afternoon Milo brings his therapist out to the courtyard and proudly points to Tavish, “See, Mrs. C.?  That’s who I’ve been telling you about. That’s my dog.”

Wow.

Fourth-grader Aziz* is from Eritrea—a “whole day away”—and he says right up front that dogs in his homeland just aren’t like Tavish. He explains that dogs where he’s from are often feral or otherwise kept as guard dogs. The book Aziz has selected to read to Tavish at the library is a classic boy-and-his-dog story from the “Henry and Mudge” series, and Aziz asks if, as he reads, he can replace Mudge’s name with Tavish’s. It sounds like a good plan. He settles into the story, and Tavish rests a paw on the book. As Aziz finishes reading, he becomes pensive. “It must be nice to come home to a dog like Tavish,” he muses.

Agreed.

From time to time, this blog will continue to reflect upon remarkable moments in therapy dog work with Tavish.

*Names of the children have been changed to protect privacy.