Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Therapy Dogs and Children

Perri has been doing monthly visits at our local library for four and a half years now. Perri is a reading therapy dog - the idea behind this is that children who are struggling to master reading are able to relax more when reading to a dog versus a person. For the same reason we all enjoy and benefit from the company of dogs - dogs do not judge.

Perri also does work with seniors. However, working with children is far more challenging for a dog. While Perri is theoretically volunteering at the library to help reading age children find their way, she is doing far more than that. She has been a comfort for an autistic child with behavioral issues, a comfort for abused children living in foster care, and she has been specifically visited by parents who are looking for a reliably gentle and balanced dog to help their child have a good experience with a dog.

I also never anticipated how much work we would be doing with our community's children on proper handling of dogs. Children are naturally rough, and not all parents are aware of the impact that this behavior can have on a dog. There is a reason that children are victims of dog bites far more often than adults are. Children are ground level and they have a feral instinct to jump on, smack, squeeze and harass dogs, not to mention grabbing at "resources" such as toys and food. I am not going to go down the rabbit hole of the subject of dog bites and children and the why. I do feel that every child and parent that Perri and I take the time to educate on how to properly treat a dog is a possible bite victim spared. Perhaps that sounds dramatic. I don't care. Our work is valuable in so many dimensions and I think that proper handling is my unexpected #1.

And so two weeks ago, for the second time in Perri's therapy dog career with children, she growled at a child.

Wow. Second time? Yes. The first time was when Perri was in rehab for medial shoulder instability. A child flopped down on her injured right shoulder. It hurt. She growled. I had a discussion with the child and his parents on how that hurt Perri and to please be gentle with her all the time. Not just because her shoulder hurt. Perri was simply growling to say, "That hurt, please do not do that again." That is what growling is, a communication.

Perri was visiting with two young girls. They were chattering on and on to me about their dance class. I was listening to them and talking with their father. I was giving them almost all of my attention. And then I noticed a toddler, in the 2-3 year old range running towards Perri. He was screeching and it was continuous. Perri's back was to this child. It all happened very very quickly. He grabbed Perri's fur and the screaming and the grab scared her. It startled me. He lost his balance as children of that age do. To Perri's credit she licked his face when he was on the ground. My dog is a very, very kind dog. And as I was about to begin a discussion about respectful dog handling, the child grabbed Perri's chest fur all the way back around to her back and began squeezing and hitting her. This was too far. Perri growled and snarled. I instinctively reached out and grabbed Perri's muzzle. The entire experience was very shocking. I did apologize to the mother but I told her that her child's behavior scared Perri and hurt her. She apologized and said that her child was "crazy". She allowed the child to approach Perri two more times that evening. One time Perri licked the child's face again, and the other time he grabbed her again and she growled softly.

Anybody can say what they would have done in my position. I let the mother know her child's behavior was not acceptable. I paid Perri in many many peanut butter biscuits.

What happened scared me. For about five minutes. And after that I was a bit angry. What happened to Perri was very unfair, and I wish that both the mother and myself had intervened before Perri had to give such a stern warning directly to the child. When we left the library we discussed what happened with the librarians. They were understanding and felt that Perri acted appropriately.

I phoned the director of children's activities, in the interest of full disclosure of what had happened. I received full support. Perri's reaction was not maligned, but understood. And that is so important. To be supported by the facility that Perri and I volunteer for. And we were apologized to. It was no fault of the library's but the gesture meant a lot. We are appreciated and we are trusted. Perri is trusted. I am so grateful that we can continue our library visits.

A therapy dog visiting with children is a team effort. Facility, parents, handler and dog. All four have to be on the same page. Sometimes the parents are inattentive and distracted. It is not my place to judge a parent. I do not have children of my own and I know that raising them is equal parts exhausting and rewarding, although the balance can many times be tipped one way or the other. I try to focus on the child and I always appreciate the parent's support. But the responsibility ultimately lies with me, to be vigilant and make sure that Perri is comfortable and happy in her work. That is my job as Perri's teammate.

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