This past week I was talking to my dad on the phone, a 71 year old widower who lives in Tacoma WA. The conversations generally start off with family chat, then to current events and onto politics. But this time, our weekly talk went into a very different & unexpected direction. My dad explained to me that the only way he can read his morning New York Times, is by placing all of Peaches (his 4 year old cat) toys in a paper bag, roll it up and let her bat the bag around the house until she can free all the toys. Once she has finished this task, she then brings him one of her balls and drops it at his feet, where my dad uses a wooden yard stick to create his own version of a ‘chuck-it,’ to fling the ball across the room. I found it funny Peaches trained him to play a game of fetch, and my dad was proud that he came up with the ‘paper-sack’ game as well as his yard stick ball- flinging invention.
Listening to my dad talk about his daily play session with his feline companion, reminded me how important play is. Play stimulates not just the brain, but also the body. It decreases stress and increases learning. Research (done on rats) has shown that there are cognitive benefits to play. And there are numerous books and websites on the subject of how play can benefit a dog’s behavior. Patricia McConnell’s booklet ‘Play Together, Stay Together’ comes to mind.
I learned about the power of play from my first agility instructor. In her class, teaching a dog to play was just as important as teaching the proper entry of the weave poles or safely navigating an A-Frame. I learned to safely play tug by obtaining & keeping eye contact during the game and by teaching the dog to grab, play and release on command. By becoming your dogs’ playmate, you are also becoming a provider of fun, and increasing your value to the dog. I took these ‘play basics’ into my class-room to show students that they can use more than food to motivate their dogs to learn.
One of my favorite classes to teach is a 4 week recall workshop. It encompasses everything I love about training. Like any ‘obedience’ class I have taught, it’s about decreasing the stress of owners by empowering them that they can train and motivate their dogs and enhance the relationship between dog and handler. I use food, toys, play and movement to keep students and dogs engaged. It’s amazing at what I can get adults to do all in the name obtaining a recall! Each student brings their dogs’ favorite toy (s) and they learn how to initiate and play a controlled game of tug, run, and romp with their dogs. At the end of the hour session students are usually leaving class laughing, tired and out of breath!
I enjoy being my dogs’ playmate, as well as a teacher, provider, companion and benevolent leader. By using play as a reward, we are showing our dogs the ‘lighter’ side of our human nature that is mutually beneficial.
Last spring my dogs and I became certified therapy dogs through Therapy Dogs Inc. Since then, we have become members of the therapy dog program at Maine Medical Center.
I was so nervous when Liam and I made our first visit. My tester and all around therapy dog guru, Mary, along with her super cool standard poodle Cato quickly put us at ease as we walked through the maze of hallways toward the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital. I had no idea what to expect, or even what to do. What I did know was that my laid back dog had a rock solid temperament and although he is 27 inches at the withers and is a giant by most standards, he is gentle and has a soft and welcoming way about him. People are drawn to him like a magnet, and I knew it was ok if I didn’t know what to do; I would watch my dog and follow his lead. He would guide us into conversation with patients.
And guide us he did. I asked Liam to lie down so that he was less imposing to the kids. And the kids came to him, as they always do, touching his soft ears and long muzzle as he slowly wagged his tail. Some kids hugged him, while others stood in the doorway and just watched.
I stood there, proudly watching my big squishy dog and answering questions. What kind of dog is he?’ ‘How old is he?’ does he know any tricks?’ ‘Does he like to play ball?’
Since then, we have visited almost every area of the hospital. And I have found that the questions are the same regardless of the floor we visit. But I don’t mind. I love seeing the reaction of patients & their visitors as we enter the room. That moment that they forget how strange it is to see a dog in a hospital. I love that my dog can bring some kind of normalcy to a person who is in pain. I love that, because of my dog, I have made a human connection I would have not otherwise made. I love that my dog and dogs in general, have this kind of power over the human heart.
This Thanksgiving, I am grateful for my health and grateful for the dogs in my life. I am grateful that they, for a few moments, can make someone else as happy as much they make me happy.