When my wife I adopted Buddha he was a two-year old Labrador with no training and serious case of separation anxiety, thanks to a puppyhood that was disrupted by misfortune beyond his control. His foster family had just begun working on his SA and suggested that Buddha could become a therapy dog, if only he was given the support he required.
I not only adopted Buddha but also the goal of seeing him become my Pet Partners registered therapy dog. If human kindness and sound dog stewardship could heal Buddha and make him the social butterfly I imagined him to be, I reasoned he could then heal people by spreading Dog Medicine.
It took about 10 weeks to resolve his SA, and six training courses with force-free trainers to teach Buddha (and me) the skills we needed to be a good team. After passing the Canine Good Citizen test we prepared for the Pet Partners evaluation with additional training and social exposure in public places.
Fast forward six years to the demise of Jake, our eldest Labrador, and I witnessed Buddha immediately suffer an anxiety relapse. Butterfly wings are fragile, and Buddha needed more support than his housemate (Gandhi) to remain confident. After another 10 weeks of SA protocols Buddha was back in top form.
That was one year ago.
This spring I resolved to help my social butterfly develop wings of iron and set a plan in motion. First, we renewed his Canine Good Citizen and Pet Partners status through successful examination. Then I maintained his weekly visits with Gandhi to a trusted dog daycare, several weekly trips in my car to visit our vet clinic, the bank drive-thru, to restaurants which permit dogs in their outdoor dining space, and myriad social activities.
Living in the countryside one may feel limited in social activity options, but a quick drive to any one of several small towns affords us opportunities to practice basic training among the fans at soccer and softball games, roller skate parks, tennis courts and assorted festivals and events or to simply walk about in new neighborhoods.
During each activity Buddha and I practiced our communication skills through training exercises. He developed his ability to focus on and to trust me in any environment, and I developed my ability to read his body language and give him the support he required. By fall it was time for a real challenge.
On October 3rd we spent 90 minutes in downtown Madison (WI) as 70,000 football fans streamed into the stadium to watch the Wisconsin Badgers and Iowa Buckeyes. Buddha and I picked a hectic intersection and played our full range of training games, with breaks for belly rubs and petting from passing fans.
Buddha spent most of his time lying beside me as people of all ages, shapes and sizes passed within reach. There were rowdy college men shouting to one another, people in wheelchairs and using crutches, children running, drivers honking horns, and plenty of attention was paid to Buddha. In the context of the Pet Partners evaluation, it was a “complex” environment.
Having spent spring and summer reinforcing his social skills, nothing fazed Buddha. Not the intoxicated lady who fell off the curb and into the street, not the sudden appearance of someone who looked a little too much like Elvis, and not even the food vendors who parked at our feet for 30 minutes and satisfied 100 customers while shouting “Brats ‘n burgers for a buck!”
Considering Buddha is the most food-motivated dog I have ever known, his ability to remain cool as a cucumber was a great testament to his polite social skills. My little buddy had become an iron butterfly, at last.
Don’tcha know that I love you?
Don’tcha know that I’ll always be true?”(1)
Buddha and Gandhi have taught me the power of love and the value of continued socialization and training. When we bring dogs into our lives we begin a journey together. Let us enjoy each step of the way and weave ourselves together in the fabric of life through force-free methods.
(The sad irony of our visit to the football game is that a first-time puppy owner cancelled his training session with me…so he could watch the game. Priorities.)
(1) “In-a-gadda-da-vida”, Iron Butterfly, 1969.