The ‘Big Prize’: Helping a Dog Find her Personal Bliss

This past Sunday, A Rotta Love Plus hosted a Therapy Dogs International (TDI) test, which resulted in six new Rottweilers and pit bulls, plus one Weimaraner, becoming part of the therapy dog community. Congratulations to Albert, Atlas, Blue, Jackie-O, Jameson, Jana, and Palace, who are going to make such wonderful additions to whichever therapy dog program they and their humans decide to participate in (we have a suggestion!)

Blue: Newly-Minted Therapy Dog

Ashley and Ryan from Wag n’ Woofs doggy daycare/training facility in Eden Prairie kindly donated the space to test, and Pat Kinch and her team from TDI came out to administer it. In addition, twenty-three (!) ARLP volunteers came to support, observe, take photos, and work on craft projects that ARLP sells at awareness events. The Wag n’ Woofs blog put it perfectly: “All the owners were so kind and supportive of each other! It made me realize just one more reason why choosing to adopt a dog is so rewarding. Adopting a rescue dog doesn't just bring one new family member into your life, but a whole support group of people.”

Test-Day Volunteers Enjoyed Crafts, Coffee, and Conversation

A number of those who took Sunday’s test were graduates of ARLP’s Rott n’ Pit Ed (RPEd) training class. Veteran ARLP volunteer Brit Horob describes what it was like to witness their journey: As a trainer with RPEd I’ve seen a lot of these dogs go from animal control, to a foster home, and then to their forever home. It’s not lost on me how much work goes into some of these dogs. They come to ARLP under-socialized and without any boundaries; it falls to the foster homes and adopters to attend training class and work on those issues. Sometimes the issues are minor and easily taken care of. Other times, it can mean years of re-socializing and reconditioning on a daily basis. Several of the dogs tested on Sunday came into the program years ago and have been working ever since to become well-socialized members of society.

Some of the handlers whose dogs did not pass the test were very disappointed. I hope that they understand that, although they didn’t pass, the path that they have already traveled with their dogs is something to be very proud of. The amount of work the owners have put in with their dogs humbles me.

One such handler, ARLP volunteer Laura Anderson (who helps promote ARLP’s foster dogs on Facebook and founded the Twin Cities Pack Walk group), wrote the following touching account about her experience on Sunday with her beauty-queen pit bull, Penelope:

Even though it has only been just over a year it feels like a lifetime since Penelope first walked into my life. Penelope's timidness was apparent at the outset and I should have seen the work that was ahead of me when I first met her, but I didn't, all I saw was the love I felt for this shy little dog. Penelope was terrified of unknown dogs and people. She was afraid of thresholds, noises, and even some toys. To deal with these challenges I had to accept a lot of realities about dog ownership that I had previously taken for granted. I remember consciously acknowledging that it wasn't Penelope who was lucky to have me, but that I was lucky to have her. And lucky I have been. Lucky to be able to take this journey with her, to teach her to love and to trust, and to show her the way. Never, not even once, did I question whether it would be worth it; from day one, it was. 

Our first step was to take a class for shy and fearful dogs. We chose to enroll in a highly referred class with Danielle at the Canine Coach. It wasn't until I began this class that I realized just how much more work I needed than Penelope. Prior to adopting her I had been severely bitten trying to intervene in a dog fight. I had a newfound respect for my limitations with dogs, but also a debilitating fear of aggression. I will admit I was not the best leader at first. Nothing is more challenging to a fearful dog than a fearful leader and my first lesson was that if I could not be the leader I needed to be, I had to enlist the support of my partner. My husband took Penelope through her first class with enormous success; I worked with her at home to build her confidence and began to work with other dogs to build my own confidence. We were indeed works-in-progress, but at least progress was somewhere in our equation.

The funny thing about progress is that it can suddenly move so quickly that you get caught up in the momentum and find yourself back where you began. Penelope's next step was to enroll in Rott n’ Pit Ed classes with A Rotta Love Plus. The structure of the classes and wisdom of the instructors provided both Penelope and myself with a level of comfort and security that can not be understated. We were in the company of skilled and understanding dog advocates who knew that perfection did not make a great dog. We found a community of support and education and learned through collective ups and downs. In just two months with Rott n’ Pit Ed we were able to obtain our Canine Good Citizen title, a monumental symbol and acknowledgment of just how far we had come. Words can not explain how proud I was of myself, my community, and most importantly my little girl. We had become a team and we had built the foundation of our success on mutual trust and understanding. I had made a promise to Penelope that I would protect her and I intended to keep it.

Like any good mother I decided to push for the next step, the big prize, Penelope's therapy title. Though I had my hesitations I figured there wouldn't be any harm in trying - what was the worst that could happen? So we prepared and we practiced. We explored new places and people. We worked with increasing levels of distraction and we made impressive strides. Somewhere along the way I went from “well it's worth a shot” to “we could actually do this thing.” Somewhere along the way I convinced Penelope she was ready and she followed me into the fray on testing day.

And so I had let forward progress propel me into a new an exciting place, except I forgot one very important thing:

I forgot to ask Penelope if she wanted to be a therapy dog.

People often say that therapy dogs are born and not made, that a therapy dog has a certain bomb-proof temperament and an innate desire to please any human in their path. None of these things describe Penelope at this point in her life and yet here we were entering the testing circle ready for the “ultimate challenge.” I was so distracted by my nerves that I forgot to be a leader and Penelope was so confused by my energy she forgot to be herself. We both regressed to that shy little pair entering the Canine Coach and I don't think I was prepared for how it would make me feel.

I couldn't get out of the ring before the tears started to flow. I was upset with myself for doing poorly, for leading my best friend astray, but I didn't really know why. I couldn't put my finger on what had brought the tears. I was prepared to fail and knew I would be proud of my girl regardless. What I didn't prepare myself for was that I would so profoundly disappoint myself. I swallowed my pride and came to a very difficult realization.

Penelope didn't trust me, not in that ring. And why should she have trusted me? For the past year I had built our relationship on the foundation of trust. A foundation that rested on the simple idea that I would protect her. I promised that I would look out for her best interests and help her develop to her full potential. That I would do everything in my power to make her happy. I didn't just push her, I pushed her too far. I violated every single one of these fundamental principles to do something that would make me happy.

I drove home sorting through the day and turned to my girl and asked what I had forgotten to ask in the first place.

And she said: “not yet.”

And so what if she isn't ready to be a therapy dog?

So what if she'll never be?

All I ever wanted was for her to be happy.

And she is.


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