Monday, February 15, 2016

2nd time is a charm...

This past weekend, Asha and I passed the Pet Partners test to become a Certified Therapy Dog Team. This has been several years in the making and we are so very proud. This is quite an accomplish for a "normal" dog, even more so for one that was born blind and deaf like Asha.

Asha has always loved people and her effect on them is undeniable. We live with her day to day and it easy to forget just how special she is. In the midst of the chaos that she often creates in our lives, she can seem just like any other dog. She has won a Hero Award, been voted Fan Favorite at a Top Dog Contest and now passed her Therapy Dog test but when she is pacing and barking while I am trying to work, none of that matters!

Asha's different ability doesn't seem so different to us most of time, we take it for granted because it is just how we live. My purpose with Asha has always been first and foremost to keep her safe. This means that I keep her close and use touch signals to reassure her. We have a bond like no other, built solely on trust. I don't always realize just how much she depends on us until someone else points it out.

At the beginning of Asha's life with us, all we wanted to do was survive. The idea of doing anything with her other than just keeping us all alive was unthinkable. It wasn't until we met a very special person that we started to think there could be more purpose to Asha's life.

We adopted Asha from the Oregon Humane Society in July of 2011. In February of 2013, Asha was awarded the Diamond Collar Hero Award by OHS and we attending a wonderful banquet at a downtown club. During this banquet, Asha met many people (there were about 500 attendees).

After the event was over, several people came over to meet us. Just about everyone talked with Trevor and I, then they reached down to pet Asha. One man, dressed in a business suit, walked over and squatted down on the floor in front of Asha, almost ignoring me and Trevor. During that time of her life, Asha did not like having anyone right in her face and she never licked anyone. She would usually turn her face away. This time was different.

Asha was standing next to me. When this man squatted down, Asha put her ears back and sat down. He spoke softly to her and Asha licked his face. Trevor and I looked at each other and then said "who are you and what you do you?" We knew there had to be something special about this man, because Asha was telling us.

He said "I'm a lawyer and on the Board of Trustees at OHS". Right...but there has to be more? "My dog Annie and I were a therapy dog team for years," he said. And there it was. This was a special person with a soul that could be seen and heard by a deaf and blind dog. His name was Akin Blitz and he talked with us for while. Akin was the one who first suggested that we look into becoming a Therapy Dog Team.

A Therapy Dog Team is a human and their pet who provide comfort during visits to patients in hospitals, nursing homes or to children in schools. Asha's story and demeanor, as well as her love for people and ability to navigate the world make her a wonderful candidate for this kind of work.

It took three years, but we finally did it. I looked at the classes and testing several times when we lived in Washington. The timing was never right and so we didn't do it. It has been in the back of my mind since that day with Akin. There were subtle signs that now was the time. When we met our behavioral vet here in Ohio, her trainer suggested we become a Therapy Dog Team. Then, I was at a benefit for our local shelter and there was a group from the local hospital there talking about their Therapy Dog Program. And so I found the next testing and signed up.

I went to the handlers class back in October and then Asha tested. The test is these 20 exercises:

-accepting greeting from a stranger
-accepting petting from a stranger
-loud noises
-leave it
-rough petting in a group of people
-loud equipment (wheelchairs, walker, people talking loudly)
-Sit on command
-Down on command
-Come on command
-Stay on command
-walking nicely on leash
-walking through a crowd
-restraining hug
-allowing an overall physical exam
-loud individual
-angry yelling
-being bumped from behind
-being offered a treat
-ignoring another dog

Asha knows sit and down with touch signals. Touch on the top of the head has signaled "sit" as long as I can remember - she learned that within a week of coming to live with us. She learned down years ago but really only does it now when presented with a treat. The sign for that is touch to the chin. Since she can't see or hear, she would be unable to "come when called", so we had to come up with another way to do that and get an exception to the test.

Working with the evaluators, we petitioned the program for an exception. Asha's vet, Dr Pachel had to write a letter about Asha's disability and agree that she would be a good candidate for a Therapy Dog. We were granted the exception and would be allowed ONE tug on the leash to get her to come.

The day of the test, I was SO nervous. I felt like this would be the way to validate Asha and her abilities. I knew that the evaluators (who hadn't met Asha) doubted that it would be possible for Asha to pass. That day, the room was full of volunteers and all the evaluators came in to watch. I felt quite a bit of pressure to show how special Asha is. I am very protective of her and only want her to impress.

We had been working on her skills. I was mostly worried that she wouldn't do the down without a treat and treats aren't allowed. We went through the test and Asha did her best - I could hear some "ooohhs" and "aahhs" as she impressed people with her abilities. Then came the time for down. I touched her chin and she considered laying down but changed her mind. I got anxious and worried that she wouldn't do it. I have no doubt she felt that and she got confused. Then she refused to lay down and I gave up on her instead of doing what I always do, which is let her know it is okay and helping her do what she needs to do.

At that point, I knew we didn't pass. They let us complete the test and Asha did everything else just fine. A perfect score is required to pass and so Asha and I were given a "not ready" score. We would need to take the test again.

I will admit, I was tremendously disappointed. Asha didn't know the difference, she had a wonderful time, met new people, visited a new place and got to spend time with me. But I was so sad about it and felt like I had failed her. I know this is silly, but that's how I felt.

The evaluators encouraged us to come back and test again. I promised I would and I promised that we would work on the down. Asha knew it, we just needed to be able to do it. That was October.

Last week I got an email that another evaluation had been scheduled and would Asha be able to come test. My answer was "yes, yes, yes!" And so on Saturday, we made the 45 drive to try again.

I had been working with Asha on "down". She doesn't always do it for me, but she knows it. The other day, Trevor used the signal on her for the first time and she laid down, so I knew that she really did know it!

I was nervous again this time, but decided to approach this test like we approach everything else that we do. I would be her advocate and help her understand what was being asked of her. I would support Asha and let her know it was all okay. I knew that if I did that, she would pass. Asha trusts me so much, I often take that for granted. I wouldn't take it for granted this day.

When we arrived I saw the evaluators who were all familiar and all happy to see us. Asha remembered them too - her little nubbin tail wagged furiously when she met them for this second time. We walked around the room to get familiar with it and then we were ready to test.

We went through all the exercises and when we got to the down command, I think the whole room held their breath. I knew she could do it and when I asked, Asha complied. She laid down like a boss. I hugged and kissed her and thanked her for doing this seemingly simple command.

Asha passed all the other exercises as well, including the "come when called" with ONE tug of the leash. They brought in a "neutral" dog to test Asha's reaction to another dog. When I saw the dog they were using I almost started to cry. This dog looked EXACTLY like my friend Ashleys' dog, Larry. I saw this doggie and I knew it all going to be okay. And it was. Asha passed. We jumped for joy and I showered her with kisses. I do that often, she just sits and let's me do it as if to say "Oh mom...."

And there you have it. I am so proud of Asha and so very excited to continue on with the process. I will now go through orientation and mentoring at the hospital. Then we will begin our visits. Asha is a special soul and I feel a responsibility to share that with the world. This is good start.

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