Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Social Bridges & Pet Assisted Therapy Animals

I have been involved with pet assisted therapy work since 1998. While I began with one organization, Furry Friends Pet Assisted Therapy Services, I have added others including Hospice of the Valley and Hospice of Santa Cruz County. I find working with and training volunteers so rewarding; evaluating their pets for visits in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and libraries, to name a few. Creating classes, answering questions, and promoting the work done by the volunteers is my idea of career nirvana.

In 2005, my son was gifted with a beautiful, intuitive, empathetic, rough coat collie named Cooper. This dog was amazing. He watched out for my children, playing endless rounds of board games and dress up, and worked for me in the community helping children in schools learn about dog safety and helping children afraid of dogs to overcome their fears. Kids were his happy place and I was more than delighted to have him as my companion on many library and school visits. When he passed away suddenly in 2014, my family was devastated and I lost my partner. In my grief, I reached out to the wider, collie community and along came Desi, my current pet assisted therapy dog. Desi is a retired show dog who loves everyone...kids, elderly people, the garbage collector, and the mailman are all Desi's friends. While he doesn't enjoy working with me on aggressive dog cases like Cooper did, he WILL do it...as long as the treats are good;)

So many of the volunteers with Furry Friends have had more than one companion animal come through the program and also felt adrift as they searched for their next pet assisted therapy animal. Life does move on after the loss of a companion animal, but for those of us who work alongside of our animals daily, the loss is felt not just by us, but by the patients and residents we visit doing pet assisted therapy.

If you are looking to volunteer in your community and you have an animal that loves people and new adventures, this may be the your calling as well. For more information on Furry Friends, visit their website at www.furryfriends.org.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Social Bridges & Service Dogs

Back in the dark ages when I was a graduate student at UC Davis (okay, maybe it wasn't the dark ages, but it was the late 1980's), I worked on a project looking at the sociability of handicapped people based on whether they had a service dog present or not. Basically, we had individuals in wheelchairs move around a farmer's market setting both with and without a service dog. We recorded everything from glances to smiles to conversations. The conclusion of our research was that having a service dog meant meant more interactions with strangers; extended eye contact, smiles, greetings, and conversations. The same people in wheelchairs without the service dog were engaged less and, frankly, often blatantly ignored.

Why am I bringing this up now?  I was asked about my thoughts on the recent U.S. Supreme Court case where the family of a young girl denied access to schooling because of her service dog sued the school district and won. You can see the case details here:


The school felt that having a human aide should be sufficient; she didn't "need" the dog. What this school failed to realize is that this child's service dog provided much more than help with dropped items, opening doors, etc. This dog was her social bridge--this dog did all of these tasks and more. Having a service dog means this child will be socially engaged by other children and adults. She will be spoken to. She will be acknowledged. She will be incorporated in their interactions that do not directly relate to school work and classroom curriculum. She will be judged less by her disability. And the bottom line? Discriminating against her and prohibiting her from attending school with her service dog violated her rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

So, how do I feel about the Supreme Court's decision? I feel relieved. For me, this case was a no-brainer.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

An interesting thread began on one of the collie-lover Facebook pages I belong to. Someone asked about what it meant when his collie bowed. He clarified that he wasn't talking about a play bow, but about his collie bowing outside of play.  A flurry of thoughtful and fun posts followed.  I added my two cents worth and felt like it was such a great topic, I needed to share elsewhere!

I like to think of these types of behaviors as "social bridges." Dogs are social creatures just like us. They use body language to communicate with us and with each other. The bow is a lovely little display meant to signal to us that the dog is engaged, invested in the relationship, and ready to "dance," whatever that dance might be. Perhaps the bow came after you asked them if they'd like to go for a walk or if they are ready to go. Or maybe the bow came when you approached, they made eye contact, and you smiled at them. I like to think of this type of bow as coming from the same place as the human hand placed gently on the back of a shoulder or on the forearm when two friendly people are communicating with each other. It's a bridge...it says, "Hey!  I hear you...I like you...I feel you."

So the next time your dog bows, and it isn't about soliciting play, respond in kind. Smile, invite them to tag along. Engage them.