"O.K. gang, let's get started," shouts Janice Ronald to the class. The group had been mingling around the large meeting room for some time, waiting for everyone to sign in.
The instructor, in another attempt to quiet the crowd, spoke with her outside voice. "We need to begin so you can get out of here on time."
Only half of the warm-blooded bodies assembled paid attention. A few of the trainees yapped, while others decided to lie down and wait for something to happen.
After order was restored, Janice spoke again. "Let's start by introducing yourself and your partner to the group. She pointed towards the lady beside me in a non-verbal command for her to start.
"I'm Terry and this," as she pointed to her companion, who occupied her lap, "is Tucker." Tucker did not speak nor did anyone expect him to. Terry then looked over to me to indicate I was next.
I obliged her with, "Hello, I'm Ray, a.k.a. Grizzly, and this is Oso, a.k.a. The Incredible Dog."
My introduction brought about a few laughs from some of those in attendance, but not one bark came from the 20-odd canines. This is good, because barking is one trait that could boot a four-legged applicant out of the class.
Come to think of it, barking by a dog's master might exclude them, too. The evening was the first of three training sessions, followed by a night of testing, in a process to certify as a Therapy Dog and Handler Team through Therapy Dogs International.
In order to qualify, a potential therapy dog must be at least a year old, but there are no stipulations as to a particular breed; pure and mixed breeds are accepted.
Oso's class consisted of dogs of all sizes. It included Terry's terrier, a shih tzu, a cocker spaniel, an American bulldog, a poodle mix, a shepherd/lab mix, a collie, three golden retrievers, a sheepdog and an assortment of others. Most of the class was larger dogs like my Oso Oro (Spanish for "Gold Bear"), who is a great Dane/golden cross. He stood above the whole class until test night when two huge mastiffs arrived on scene.
"Is it possible for the dog to pass and its handler flunk?" I asked Janice. She informed me that handlers would not pass if they were abusive in their manners or actions towards any dog, and might be disqualified if it appeared they were not taking proper care of their animal.
The testing of dog and owner/handler is more accurately an evaluation of how the team (mostly the dog) reacts to various situations. My favourite scenario involved Janice and her assistants, Kelly and Cathy, in a meet-and-greet session with a twist. The three had taken on the role of being handicapped in one way or another. A wheelchair, a walker and a cane were used as props. Each handler/dog pair was directed to roam in and around the evaluators and paws, oops, I mean pause, in the middle of the three. The team is required to remain calm during this period, when Janice and company closes in to pet the dog on one end and possibly grab a tail (the dog's tail) at the other end.
Another "test" involved walking the dog alongside food placed in the pathway. Neither the dog nor his master is allowed to make a lunge for the food.
A handler, whose dog jumps up on people, is aggressive to other dogs or even barks too much (an objective call) will find his or her duo out of the program.
For me, the training and testing charges, the application fee and vet services (over what I would normally incur) came to over $150 and I'm not counting the cost to certify Lynda, my wife, who also went through the sessions with Oso.
Why would anyone invite an expense to perform a volunteer service? Although I'm new to the program, I'd say the answer is simply that we want to help others who are in need of what we can provide. As their title indicates, a dog's mere presence has a therapeutic value to kids with special needs in schools, and patients, both young and old, in hospitals.
Their greatest use, however, probably occurs in nursing and care homes across the country. Since some are not permitted to have pets, elderly residents at long-term care facilities are separated from an important part of their lives. The rewards a handler receives are from the smiles they bring to the faces of those they meet.
To learn more, log on to www.tdi-dog.org
Ray "Grizzly" Racobs is a humour columnist and the author of Oro, The Incredible Dog, a book about a telepathic dog.