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Old August 11th, 2005, 08:03 AM
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badger badger is offline
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Therapy dog

Thursday, August 11, 2005 Globe and Mail

Grooming brush? Check. Four-foot leash? Check. Toenails trimmed? (The dog's, not mine.) Check.

I park my car at the seniors' residence in north-east Toronto, feeling excited and anxious. Today is the long-awaited day I discover whether Lucy, my black standard poodle, will qualify as a therapy dog.

Lately my life has been too complicated and I need to do something simple.

Visiting seniors with my dog, bringing comfort and companionship, seems perfect. But before we can set a single paw inside a nursing home, we have to earn a Canine Good Neighbour certificate from the Canadian Kennel Club.

Failing even one of the 12 exercises in the test will mean disqualification, a tail-drooping outcome for more than half the dogs that try out.

I figure our odds are pretty good. Lucy has the most important requirement for this kind of work: a great temperament. I can take her dinner bowl out from under her nose and pluck her favourite toys right out of her mouth without a murmur of complaint. Even as a puppy she was remarkably calm, with an apparently endless capacity for chin scratches and belly rubs. Now four years of age, with two rounds of obedience school under her collar, she's solid on basic commands like Sit, Down, Come, and Stay.

But like most dogs, she can still be exasperatingly single-minded.

I pause outside the red-brick building and check the printed instruction sheet one last time. We will be observed from the moment we arrive, but as we approach the glass doors to the reception area my confidence grows.

Prancing beside me, Lucy seems at her best: alert and intelligent, calm and dignified.

I step inside and my composure wilts like a Siberian Husky in July. Straight ahead, on the far side of the room, an impossibly large green parrot drags a wooden block back and forth across the bars of a floor-to-ceiling cage. The toy clatters to the floor as the beast squawks: "Hello! Arrrhhh! Hello!"

No match for 60 pounds of determined poodle, I am quickly pulled across the slippery tile floor and I know we have failed.

Rigidly focused on the parrot -- which I later learn is named Birdie -- Lucy takes on the weight and demeanour of a granite statue. She strains to be closer, planting her paws up on the visitor's couch. After an unhappy struggle I manage to drag her back across the room, painfully aware of the dozen eyes watching our every move. Lucy's head stays craned toward the cage. Sweating a bit, I check in at the registration table and take a seat.

There are two other dogs: a qualified therapy dog and another other who is scheduled to be tested along with us. They are both maddeningly well-behaved. Lucy keeps her eyes fixed on Birdie, ignoring the gentle efforts of the organizers to pet and talk to her. I keep waiting to be drawn aside and asked to leave, to try again another time. Two official evaluators approach, clipboards in hand, and my heart beats faster. They call us into the test room. Mercifully, it is out of sight of the cage.

Although I'm now expecting the worst, Lucy performs almost flawlessly. She is unperturbed by a pack of volunteers wielding crutches, walkers and wheelchairs, some lurching wildly and calling out in guttural yells to test her composure. She doesn't flinch as metal bowls are flung down behind her.

She remains serene as multiple hands reach out to pull at her ears and examine her teeth. Her calmness is challenged only when I step outside the room for the mandatory three minutes to test her ability to wait politely for my return; she nearly drags the volunteer handler out the door trying to see where I went. She probably thinks I'm playing with the parrot.

The 12 exercises complete, I wait anxiously while the evaluators confer. I guess "Birdie tolerance" isn't an official requirement: they reveal our scores and we have passed. My fellow contestant with the dog I had initially thought so perfect has not.

Lucy has now been a full-fledged therapy dog for six months, visiting people who are struggling with dementia. Some exist in silence, rarely venturing out of their internal world. Others screech and shout and bang on counters.

But when Lucy appears, confusion and anger alike seem to vanish. Some people scratch her ears with an expert hand; others barely manage to tap her head.

One woman sings to her in a high wobbly voice. She accepts it all.

Sometimes she buries her head in their musty laps or peers straight into their wrinkled faces, her big black nose just inches away.

As I watch clouded eyes suddenly focus and sorrowing faces crease into smiles, my heart feels full.

I am grateful to have such a gentle and patient friend.

In retrospect, the anxiety of the test was a small price to pay for all of this.

Still, I'm glad it's over. I hear that Birdie the parrot has started barking like a dog.
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