This past week I attended the 5 day Western Veterinary Conference in Las Vegas, in order to renew my Registered Veterinary Technician license. Because of my dog Poppy’s special needs, my mom and Poppy came along to Vegas as well. Poppy loved that her Grammie was with her while I was at lectures. Mom dropped me off in the mornings and took Poppy socializing at the hotel or at a park. At lunch they’d pick me up, we’d get a bite to eat, and I would help Poppy empty her bladder. I’d then go back to classes and we’d do it again in the evening. I attended 33 hours of classes in 5 days on a wide variety of canine and feline related subjects including: behavior problems, nutrition, heart disease, supplementation, neurology, laser therapy, canine rehab, inappropriate elimination and feline medical challenges.
I attended a special cocktails and hors d’oeuvres evening session on the human animal bond, given by Jennifer Arnold of Canine Assistants of Milton, Georgia. Her subject resonated powerfully with me because of my own psychiatric disability and was one of the highlights of the week.
The evening began with a Canine Assistants video (sponsored by Elanco), which asked, “What does your dog mean to you?” The replies included:
- Unconditional love
- He changes the conversation
- Fills the empty spaces
The video illuminated how an assistance dog (or any special animal!) changes the way you feel about yourself. They start conversations and increase the disabled person’s ability to talk with others. Not only do assistance dogs retrieve objects, turn lights on and off, open and close doors, provide physical support, pull a wheelchair, and summon help, but they enable a person to achieve greater independence, confidence, and happiness overall. Canine Assistants provide assistance dogs for children and adults with mobility difficulties, seizure disorders and other special needs, including diabetes.
Jennifer, the founder and Executive Director of Canine Assistants, was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis at the age of 16. She couldn’t attend school anymore because it was not accessible with her physical limitations. Jennifer spent 2 ½ years in a wheelchair. She frequently tipped over when trying to retrieve something off the floor. She was deflated by her diagnosis. The family decided to try to get Jennifer an assistance dog, but the only person they could find who trained assistance dogs for purposes other than for the blind was in California and they had a huge waiting list.
In 1980, her father, an eye surgeon, came up with the idea for Canine Assistants. She grasped onto the idea with hope, that something positive could come out of her MS diagnosis. 3 weeks later, her dad was hit while walking by the side of the road by a motorcycle. He was in intensive care overnight. Jennifer stayed in her chair in the waiting room and thought, “I hate you, God! I quit! Forget it!” Her father passed away the next morning, but Jennifer made a deal with herself to make life easier for people who were suffering like she was.
It took 11 years for Jennifer and her mom to get the money from her dad’s life insurance policy. There was an exclusion on the life insurance policy against two-wheeled vehicles. The exclusion was supposed to protect the insurance company from claims from people while driving motorcycles, not people who were hit by motorcycles. Eventually their case was won, and in 1991, Jennifer and her mom started Canine Assistants.
The newly formed company had no idea how to train a dog to turn on a light, so a woman came to show them what to do. The dogs, Jennifer and her mom didn’t like the trainer’s harsh and painful methods of training. Jennifer found that kindness worked better and was quicker than the outdated harsh methods. The company painfully endured the era of the “alpha dog dominance theory of training.” Jennifer started working with aggressive dogs, when people starting saying, “Well of course you can be kind! They’re Golden Retrievers.” Jennifer says, “Dogs really do rule! Dogs are rock stars! They’re the last really nice guys on the planet. They don’t see the need to forgive us, since they look at us in a haze of affection.”
Through all of the different training theories, what Jennifer realized is that THE BOND is all that matters. She had been focused on building the number of things that she could make a dog do on cue. Now she focuses on the relationship of the dog and human. They look for the magic that happens when the right dog meets the right human. They call it the “Tab B fits into Slot A” method. Canine Assistants got rid of their two week training camp and abolished the cues. They decided it was a bad way to start a relationship by bossing someone around! For one week, the human isn’t allowed to boss the dog around. When the dog does something that the person likes, they click and treat. The focus is to build the bond between the new pair. By focusing on the bond, they’re able to form trust, which leads to everyone’s safety and security.
Jennifer explained how to quickly form a bond with an unfamiliar (but person-friendly) dog:
#1 Give respect! Dominance is a myth.
#2 No corners! This means, don’t trap the dog or they’ll get a fight or flight response.
#3 Play the “Which hand?” game. Dogs can’t feel fear when they’re in seeking mode. When they’re involved in finding, their fear abates.
#4 Let the dog make the initial contact.
#5 Pat and patter. Use a reassuring voice and a pleasant patter of conversation with the dog. Dogs see us as their primary parenting figure. Anchor contact with the dog by scratching them on the chest (unless they’re highly reactive!) Try to see what is scary from the dog’s perspective and always give the dog a flight plan.
Jennifer encouraged the veterinarians and technicians present to take a few minutes to form a bond that will last a lifetime. She feels that it’s the vet clinics (and bloggers, perhaps!) who have the power and the opportunity to help clients understand the importance of the human animal bond. We should be good role models and help others to experience the power of unconditional love. Animals deserve respect as sentient beings.
You can find more information about this dynamic brunette with the southern drawl at www.canineassistants.org. Jennifer Arnold has written 2 books, Through A Dog’s Eyes, In A Dog’s Heart, and soon will be coming out with a new book, 26 Weeks Every Dog’s A Hero. I was so impressed with Jennifer and the seminar. I’d love to eventually see their facility in person!
The week since the convention, we’ve had my friend, her Cocker Spaniel, Grissom (who Poppy just adores!) and her foster dog staying with us while their bathroom floor is replaced. Mugsy was found 3 weeks ago in their backyard. She is terrified of new dogs and quite alarmed at new people as well. Mugsy is about 1 year old and is a small terrier-pug-chihuahua mix. It’s astounding how quickly she has formed a bond with Grissom and his people, and with Poppy, my mom and me. Just a few weeks of kindness has brought out such love in this super sweet pooch. She nuzzles Poppy and Grissom’s ears and adores being petted. She’s checked in on me periodically the past couple days while I’ve been working, just like if she had been living with me for years. She’s very hand shy and it’s clear she hadn’t been treated well. Mugsy needs to learn that the other dogs don’t always want to play, and she is still frightened of other dogs and people, but we’re working on that – one dog day at a time. Despite her fear, she is an amazing team player! She looks at me with such affection that it just melts my heart!
In addition to Poppy, Mugsy and Grissom have been my Spot of Sanity this week. It’s been so wonderful feeling the bond between these dogs and their humans. Poppy adores living in a pack! Unfortunately, her legs don’t always cooperate when she’s wanting to play, but she’s doing well and enjoying extra playtime. Find out more about Mugsy and Welcome Home Dog Rescue at http://www.petfinder.com/petdetail/28569699/ and http:/welcomehomedogrescue.org
Have you experienced the miracle of a special bond with a dog, cat or other critter??? What is special about your relationship? What does your animal mean to you? Let me know in the comments below.
Editor’s Note: Fidose of Reality is proud to have a new guest contributor on board with us. Twice a month on Thursdays, we’ll be sharing this new column dubbed “A Spot of Sanity.” Please welcome Kim Kiernan and her Cocker Spaniel, Poppy, to the Fidose family. Here’s Kim’s first column if you missed it: https://fidoseofreality.com/spot-sanity-column-launches/