Sunday, June 26, 2011

Musings on Therapy Dog work in the middle school special-needs setting.

Okay, where has this blogger been for the last 5 months and how do those daily bloggers do it?? No excuses here. LIFE got in the way of my original intentions a bit, as you can see. Anyway...

It has been an incredible almost half a year in the 2 middle school classrooms that we serve. Getting to know the students and establishing a routine were not difficult but that did take about a month. One of the biggest reasons it took more time that I had predicted is that when you are working with a therapy dog it can be very intense for the handler to attend to the both the setting as well as the dog. In our situation, it was imperative that I closely watch Zen's body language at all times those first sessions. Any sign that Zen was confused, anxious, or uncomfortable in this highly distracting setting had to be addressed immediately.(I used positive reinforcement with clicker training - more about that in another post.)

My biggest concerns have always been about Zen's reactions to some of the students' behaviors. Individuals with autism and other handicapping conditions may demonstrate behaviors that are not what the average dog would be accustomed to seeing, hearing, and smelling. As most Doberman owners know,  this breed is highly sensitive to the slightest human behavior that differs from the "norm". They have been bred to be guard dogs and, as such, are often suspect of people who communicate or act in novel ways. This special sensitivity to novel stimuli can present a challenge in a classroom of special-needs students and, in fact, it did on several occasions - again, training opportunities for us and look how well it worked out!

In addition to the students we specifically serve who may suddenly decide to bounce vigorously on very large exercise balls, rock upside down in odd chairs on the floor, or make sudden and swift large body movements we also have what I, as a former teacher of students this age, call the middle school factor. This is a simple thing to grasp if you just stand in the lobby of a middle school at the change of classes; the students are incredibly loud and very impulsive. The building fairly pulses with youthful energy at all times and, at any moment, a group of happy chattering (did I say loud?) students is apt to surround your dog and want to meet/greet/pet him! I learned that just coming in the building and getting to the classrooms every week required that we be "on duty". At first it was pretty hairy because I had no idea how Zen would react to this swiftly changing environment so I had to be vigilantly tuned in every moment. I also learned to come at least 30 minutes early because it was inevitable that students passing in the hallways would want to interact with Zen. This turned out to be a wonderful thing for both of us and Zen now loves being mobbed by any and all students. This acceptance was not without a bump or two along the way, which we took as even more training opportunities.

Okay, to wrap up this entry, I just want to emphasize a couple of things. When considering a dog for therapy work, start with innate personality. Does the dog absolutely crave human interaction? Great!

Is the dog calm and steady by nature? Fantastic!

Is the dog well trained? Imperative!!!

All therapy dogs should be very well trained!!! Handler and dog should take a good training class especially for Therapy Dogs + achieve certification by a reputable Therapy Dog organization. This is imperative as a baseline for entering any therapy dog setting. In addition, the handler must be willing to be vigilant with on-going training as the therapy work presents new challenges. All dogs have the potential to react with undesirable behaviors if they interpret a situation as dangerous to themselves and/or their humans. Therapy dogs are often exposed to very unusual situations which can trigger unusual reactions. Learn all you can about canine body language (YES! They do "speak" with their bodies all the time!) and, when working in a therapy situation, stay alert at all times to your dog's body language

Zen's main goal in life is to give and receive LOVE, so that is what brings us to the school every week and that characteristic should be the first criteria for deciding if your dog would be a good Therapy Dog!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Phooey! The snow came after all.

The stinking snow & ice crud came in after all. Now we have to wait until next week for our first sessions in the classrooms. In the meantime, here are a couple of photos. The first one is Zen having a talk with a patient; 2nd photo is Zen taking a break after therapy work. School news next week I hope.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Hoping we can go to our first day at school!

January 8, 2011

Hello Friends and Supporters of The Planet, Therapy Dogs, and Peace on Earth!

This is my very first ever blog entry so please be kind with your comments. I started this blog to chronicle the journey of my beloved Doberman Zen as he expands his Therapy Dog work into the middle school setting. Zen is a certified Therapy Dog with Therapy Dog International.  He and I have been in nursing homes and a few other settings on therapy visits so he is not a novice at the job. Being a dog who absolutely craves human touch and interaction, and who has an uncanny way of relating to each person in just the way that they need, Zen is perfect for therapy work. He is a pretty big guy and thus can easily greet people in wheelchairs and beds as well as put his head in your pocket if you are standing! Most recently, he was invited to give some therapy to Santa at a local mall. Seriously, we were greeting children in the mall to prepare for our school orientation and Santa sent us a message that he could use some therapy! Of course, it might have been a gimmick to get me to buy the photo. If so, it worked! And, I do think Santa needed a little break and some doggie Zen. Luckily Zen has been taught not to sniff at people during therapy work - you can figure out why this is so important. He was extremely interested in Santa's costume right off the bat. I can only guess at the Pandora's box of interesting smells residing there (ahem) but he quietly averted his snozz when I asked him to "leave it". What a good boy!

In late fall of 2010 we found out about a fairly new program in the Orange County Schools that matches Therapy Dogs with classrooms and students. We first met with the founder of this Pet Pals program in early December and I can tell you that Wendy Stewart is a social worker with a vision! Zen and I have been invited to participate and matched with a local middle school! We are very thankful to Wendy, the prindipal, teachers, students, and parents who are allowing us to become partners with them.

So far we've briefly greeted lots of students (Zen had a blast with the middle schoolers!), had our orientation to the school, met with the wonderful teachers and social worker at our assigned school, and are poised to make our first therapy visits to two different classrooms this Tuesday. Woo Hoo!! We are currently hoping (HOPE HOPE) that a predicted wintry mix of ice and snow does not blow our plans for Tuesday.

Zen has demonstrated that he is steady as a rock with the high energy of a middle school and, at our orientation, he immediately mastered the art of spreading himself around so that no student gets left out in a group situation. It was so cool to watch him "work the crowd". He will give undivided attention to one student at at time and then carefully disengage and move to the next student with absolutely no cues or guidance from me. I am used to seeing how intuitively Zen works in a setting where folks are sick and I know he has that almost indescribable extra-sensory ability to relate to each person he meets. Even so, it was stunning to see his therapy powers at work with these youngsters in a totally different setting. Zen was obviously excited by the vibrant group energy that surrounded him, yet, as he greeted each individual student in turn, it was as if he and the student were the only two beings on the planet. How can he do that? It is certainly nothing that he has been taught. His breeder saw it when he was just a puppy in the litter.

At this orientation, one student who was at first quite frightened of Zen eventually overcame her fear enough to come over and stroke him. I watched in awe as he communicated to her with very soft and subtle body language that he was no threat and that he welcomed her approach. It was as if a very fine invisible thread was humming between the two of them and she just could not resist the pull from Zen. I heard the teacher standing behind me release a huge breath as the student reached her hand down to Zen's back and I saw Zen's nubbin gently begin to wag as the smile broke out on the student's face. It brings tears to remember it.

If you have never done therapy work with a dog I will tell you that it is a very spiritual experience. I am hooked on being a witness to the little miracles that happen. Well, time for bed and a last look at the weather. Boo snow. Boo ice. Bring on the rain!