Last year I attended classes at the local chapter of Pet Partners, a national organization that certifies therapy dogs, in order to certify Roscoe as a therapy dog. Roscoe is our four-year-old Lab/shepherd mix with a white/off-white coat. He has an excellent temperament and considers no human an adversary save for our pest control guy and our ward councilman when he is campaigning knocking on doors.
Therapy dogs are not service dogs and are generally brought to hospitals, nursing homes, hospice, and veterans' centers to provide emotional support and good cheer to the residents. But in order to become one the canine must satisfy certain behavioral and control capabilities. All breeds and mixes qualify except for pitbulls.
After a few classes I realized Roscoe wasn't going to qualify, not yet. He's still got much puppy in him and is unable to restrain his zeal in playfully jumping on others when greeting them.
So we practice restraint when approaching other dogs and humans. One activity along these lines, his favorite thing to do, even more than catching Frisbees, is to play at the Biloxi Dog Park. It's a delightful place, a converted softball diamond, where dog owners from anywhere can bring their dog, sit, relax and watch the entertainment as their "best friends" socialize and interact. Sometimes the interactions of the various dogs is hilarious.
But I had an interesting encounter last year at the park. I was sitting on one of two long benches with several others when a big man approached the gate with a huge pitbull on leash. The pitbull was menacing in appearance but beautiful with short, well-groomed, jet black hair. I could feel the others on the bench tense up when they entered.
Six dogs ran to check out the newcomers, which included butt-sniffing. Amazingly, the pitbull cowered and withdrew, perhaps intimidated by the group. Anyway, the newcomer was approved and they all scattered to play. The owner unleashed his dog who slowly traipsed around. In a few minutes he ambled over to where we were sitting.
It's not uncommon for any dog to approach someone on the bench, nudge against their legs to be petted, then move on. I've had this happen to me and it's exactly what this pitbull did. He pressed against my knees and as he did my ticker picked up speed. I lightly stroked his muscular back wondering if at any moment he might snap and leave Roscoe with a mortally wounded owner. Feeling confident I rubbed his rump, which probably no dog dislikes, and he stood half-paralyzed, enjoying the attention. A couple of pats and off he went.
It was obvious his owner had trained him to be gentle; he played well with the others -- dogs and humans.
But a few months ago we had a different encounter with pitbulls. We were walking in the Bay Vista neighborhood when I decided to vary our usual route and turned onto Parkway, which connects Churchill and Carter. As I entered onto Parkway, Roscoe on leash, for some reason I picked up a three-foot branch with a tiny cluster of leaves on the end. Not sure why. I usually don't walk with a stick. In retrospect it may have saved our lives.
Half-way down the street on our left three pitbulls, loose, began barking and then trotted slowly from their front yard. I walked into the yard on our right showing them we were not approaching their territory. But they continued to come forward, barking loudly. We hurriedly walked backwards. It was then the lead pitbull ran forward in attack mode. I brandished the branch, waving the end vigorously, calling out for the owner who was nowhere to be seen. The other two joined to support the leader. Two neighbors heard the ruckus and came out, one saying it wasn't his dogs. The leader snout to snout with Roscoe, I struck him hard on his head causing him surprisingly to back off. We kept walking backwards as the dogs retreated back to their yard, the owner still not to be seen.
Biloxi has a leash law and perhaps the only reason an owner might want to ignore this law is to allow unrestrained pitbulls to serve as surveillance if the owner might be engaging in illegal activity and not wanting anyone approaching his yard. Just a thought. I reported the incident but if you, the reader, happen to work for Animal Control in Biloxi you might want to check this out as someone is going to get hurt badly one day.
My other close call with a pitbull didn't actually materialize. Several weeks ago a new patient checked in, with a pitbull he claimed was his therapy dog. He presented papers from an organization as confirmation. Before entering the exam room the nurse informed me that a pitbull was attending the new patient, who because of an emotional past, claimed was necessary in order to feel secure.
I considered entering the room but on second thought wondered about a pitbull's ability to process the actions of a tall man in a white coat laying a stethoscope (weapon?) on the chest of his owner, touching the owner, and the exam in general. Having experienced the Parkway incident, as well as knowing that Pet Partners disqualifies pitbulls as therapy dogs, I asked the patient, via the nurse, to remove the dog or to return without the dog. He graciously did so and we had a productive visit. Any other breed would not have been a problem.
If you have a dog, but not a pitbull, that is mature-minded, older than one, able to measure his responses, with a good temperament, you may want to consider enlisting it as a therapy dog. The process is not really complicated or prolonged. and it serves a wonderful purpose. For more information you can check out Pet Partners at www.petpartners.org.
As for Roscoe, I think he'll have to wait till next year before he goes to work.