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Therapeutic but for Who?


Twenty years ago, I got my first Jack Russell Terrier. Back then they were still called Jack Russell Terriers, today they are known as Parson Russell Terriers. Her name was "Fanny" and she had been a show dog and used for breeding purposes. She had only ever lived in a kennel when I got her, so she was not housebroken, didn't know how to use stairs and did not know the usual cues like "sit" and "down". It didn't matter to me though as we had a great time working together on all those things and so much more. She became an impressive obedience competitor a "Canine Good Neighbour and "St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog". At the time I was very proud of myself and my dog. Teaching a dog to become a "Therapy Dog" is a big milestone and achievement for many people. It feels good to see your well behaved dog, so popular and at the center of attention. It also feels good being able to help people emotionally and brighten their day. When we train our dogs to become "official" advocates of a therapy program, we teach them to be obedient and focused. We try to expose and desensitize them to different things, such as wheelchairs, walkers, clanging noises, people with canes and so on. However, do we really consider or calculate the emotional pressure our dogs may be under. If a dog passes all his obedience, manners and reactivity tests, then s/he is basically good to go.

It wasn't until years later when I started to look more closely at my dogs and started to do my best to read their way of communicating, that I realized that although Fanny was being obedient, like she was trained to be, she was also trying to communicate to me and others, that she was not comfortable with the situation she was being made to endure.The above photo at the beginning of this article, shows "Fanny" in a crowd of people at a Doggie Expo. She is on a loose lead, and she is sitting as she has been cued to do, however, it is clear in this photo that she is communicating that she is not comfortable with the situation she is in and is feeling overwhelmed. (e.g. raised paw, looking away, ears back, eyes wide, pupils dilated, tension on top of muzzle, lips pulled back, upper teeth exposed, panting). And this is the dog who had passed her St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog testing a few years earlier. It took living with a dog ("Fanny's" Grandson actually), who would not tolerate over-exposure without a highly reactive response, for me to truly have an awakening to the world of "canine communication". Unfortunately, as I was learning, I still over exposed my dogs or rather did not always see or listen to what they were communicating to me.

And then many years later I joined a drill team with one of my other terriers. The drill team would visit senior homes and do a drill performance and then allow the senior audience to visit and pet the canine members of the team. The residents were so happy to watch the dogs perform and to be able to visit the dogs and touch them.....but the dogs, although tolerant were not always so happy.

Here is a photo of my drill team dog "Tally", during her after performance visitations - does she look happy - absolutely not! (e.g. ears back, tense muzzle furrowed brows, wide eyes, dilated pupils, panting). She is a very friendly, non-reactive dog, however, she clearly felt over-whelmed and wanted out of the situation.

So why did I do it? After years of studying canine body language and years of working with dogs who suffer with extreme anxiety disorders, why did I expose my own dog to something she was not comfortable with. The honest answer is, I was being selfish. It felt good to have my dog skilled at performing a drill routine, and it felt good to help brighten the lives of the residents in the senior homes. I know it was therapeutic to them, however, I also now know that it was anything but therapeutic for my dog.

And yes I know that some dogs truly do like the attention and don't mind the atmosphere of being the centre of attention, however, they are truly few and far between. The majority of dogs who are exposed to it, are only just tolerating it. So please watch your dog closely at performance events, sports events, or any event where they are required to meet the public. If your dog looks like any of the dogs in these photos - excuse yourself and your dog and take your dog home - for their sake!

I carry a lot of guilt with me, for what I have exposed my dogs to over the years, because I should have known better. For the past 10 years especially I have been very careful what I expose my dogs to, and I only expose my dogs to a scattered dog sport competition, however, I look at the above photos and know that I was not always careful enough.

We cannot keep our dogs in a plastic bubble and away from all stress, however, when we see our dogs communicating that they are uncomfortable, we have to listen and learn from it. Regardless of how good it may feel to see our dogs achieve a sports goal or how good it feels to help someone else feel good - our dogs have to come first. If they say that they are stressed, have had enough, are too tired or uncomfortable - then we have to listen to them - we simply have to.


~They count on us to protect and respect them~

© Copyright 2015 Jackie McGowan St. Croix.


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