MAGGIE: the dog who changed my life

MAGGIE: the dog who changed my life
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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Adventures in the Life of A Therapy Dog

During my years with Maggie, I didn't know about therapy dogs and all the places they could visit to make a difference in people's lives. Service dogs, yes, but not therapy dogs. I wish I had, because in retrospect, Maggie would have been an amazing therapy dog. She was a natural with the people she met, and brightened their days, but had I known, I'd have her visiting people as Chloe (our 11 year old Golden retriever we adopted a year after Maggie passed) did at Sunrise Assisted Living, and the way Maddie is now doing at the Juvenile Center.

On my visit this past Wednesday at the Juvenile Center with Maddie, I talked about canine intelligence. "How many words can dogs understand?" I asked the kids.

"200 words," offered one boy.

"Pretty good! Plus or minus," I said. "Some dogs can understand 250 words, and some people think perhaps even more."

Yet when I asked, "How many of you think dogs are intelligent?" this same boy shook his head.

"Why not?" I inquired.

"They're just animals," he said.

Just animals. Wow. So we talked about different kinds of intelligence; the left brain intelligence humans typically live in compared with the more instinctual intelligence of animals that many humans have lost touch with.

"I hope by the time we finish today you might change your mind about dog intelligence and capabilities." I informed them about seizure and diabetic alert dogs, and how some dogs have alerted mothers to an infant that stopped breathing, saving the baby's life.

"I didn't know dogs did that," the boy said with a bit of wonder and a smile. Watching his openness to the new information he was hearing warmed me.

Then I mentioned how humans respond according to what's expected of them, children and adults alike. If people are seen through a filter of not being very smart, that's often how they respond. Yet if teachers and parents look at a child through eyes that say "you are are smart--that's often the performance they get from the child.

"Perhaps dogs respond similarly to what we expect of them," I suggested. I know that's how it was with Maggie. I spoke to her as though she'd understand what I wanted, and most often she did. Through her I learned to see dogs as capable of so much more than I'd been taught, because like this boy I,too, was raised to believe that "they're just animals." Thankfully, my 2 dogs since Maggie have benefited from what she taught me.

I taught them about positive reinforcement dog training, and how dogs learned so well when it was fun and they were rewarded for what they did right rather than only receiving corrections to what they did wrong. I asked how they felt if they only heard about the things they did "wrong" vs. praise for what they did well. I think they got it.

Maddie took turns retrieving her toy with each most of the teens there -- one boy didn't wish to participate, appearing to be lost in his internal world. Difficult, no doubt. The holidays approaching and here he was ... I taught the kids some of the commands Maddie knew so they could use them with her while playing: (come -- drop -- give it -- wait -- watch me -- and OK). I had her shake with them.

Our time was up quickly. Today was a court day for them. I wished them all luck.

"I learned something today," said the boy who previously thought dogs to be unintelligent.

Nothing could have made my day more at that point. Maddie and I left, feeling we made a difference in at least one high risk teen's life today, and hopefully for the dogs and animals that cross his path in the future. We walked out through the secured doors, hoping for a brighter future for all of them.

Top Photo: Maggie (age 3 1/2 years) & me
Lower Photo: Maddie on a hike with Tom and me

Posted By:

Dawn Kairns
Author of
MAGGIE the dog who changed my life A Story of Love

Website: Blog: Dawn Kairns and Maggie the Dog Twitter:

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Frankie, the Walk 'N Roll Dog said...

I love the work you are doing with Maddie and teaching kids that animals are not JUST animals... they are living, breathing spiritual beings. I look forward to hearing more about your volunteer work in the new year.

My best! Hugs to Maddie... one for you too!

Barbara and Frankie

Dawn Kairns, Author of MAGGIE the dog who changed my life said...

Barb & Frankie,
Thanks much for checking in for your warm acknowledgment. I LOVE my work at the center with the kids, and so does Maddie.

Hugs back to you both!