Community Columns

It’s back to school for a doggy degree

I went back to school on Jan. 10, 2010. I graduated on March 14. I hadn’t gone to school in decades and school had never been my favorite destination. As a matter of fact, in Brittany during World War II, I much preferred to skip school and look for lost dogs that I would gladly bring home. Rescuing someone’s lost pet seemed to me a more worthy pursuit than learning incomprehensible rules of grammar or shamefully running away from the broad-shouldered class bully. My heart would stop at the hateful sight of him on some dusty road.

Let me now get back to more peaceful times. I was nervous on my way back to school this Jan. 10. Who would be my classmates? Would I be bright or stupid? Would I fail?

I must start this again. My dog, Nina, and I went back to school. Not just me. We went together to the Good Dog Foundation training program to become a therapy dog team. We’d be able to visit hospitals, nursing homes and schools and bring some cheer to bedridden patients or just lonely people and children.

Every Sunday for eight weeks Nina and I showed up at school, always punctual, homework done, eager to learn. The first time, Nina had to be persuaded this would be all right. That the Biscuits and Baths Doggy Gym facility where we met was not a front for some tricky veterinarian clinic. Nina would not relax. Susy Nastasi, the teacher-trainer, arrived, friendly, enthusiastic, with an energy dogs would understand and respect. Susy led us into our classroom.

One dog that showed a little bit of aggression wouldn’t survive that first session. We were five teams, with the human partners even more anxious than the furry mates. Each of us seemed to think that our pooch was the little Einstein or Mozart of modern doghood. I can’t remember all the names. But there was Maggie, the golden retriever; Branston, the Yorkshire terrier; Sparky, a curly, black, “not-sure-what-breed” kind of dog. Sparky was accompanied by a mother and two little girls. It was my favorite team. The mother smiled pensively and one daughter had a lot of wisdom for her age. Caring children, purposeful, motivated to become a therapy dog team. Sparky was a sweet, bubbly dog. A lot of tenderness in that family.

A trainer is not a trainer for nothing. Where we failed to get our dogs to respond, Susy made it clear to them and to us what she expected. The dogs sat, stood up, rolled over at her request like eager marionettes. No confusion, no resistance. Our unruly, perplexed canine partners were models of intelligence and quick learners under Susy’s leadership.

I had been so concerned that Nina, my motorcycle-hater, would not quite make it. Instead, Nina proved to be a cooperative and happy teammate ready for work. I was proud, as ridiculous as this may sound. By the third session Nina showed great enthusiasm to get to class. She would rush into the building to see her new friends and, especially, to greet Susy in a most joyful way. Nina loved Susy and not just for the chicken treats she offered in purposely small samples. I think Nina loved her because Susy brought order to the disorder of life, along with warmth and understanding. All of us, the humans, loved Susy for the same reasons, chicken treats excepted.

After four sessions of basic training some of us would be approved for the next four sessions. This could lead to therapy dog certification. Unfortunately, Sparky needed more training. I felt sad to lose this lovely team of a mother, two little girls and bubbly Sparky. I’m sure they’ll succeed one day soon.

We wouldn’t know until after the last session if we’d made it. A phone call or an e-mail would bring the good or bad news. Humans became very quiet at that last session while our dogs were totally unaware of the unfolding drama. Graduation came. Nina had made it. I almost cried. I would now look at Nina as my partner in a volunteer project. With her smooth coat and wagging tail and her smile — yes, she smiles — she would bring comfort and happiness to those who needed some. “Dogs helping humans heal,” says the official vest she received.

I have applied at two hospitals, one in Manhattan, one in Westchester. We were interviewed, my dog and me. Nina was praised at both places. She’ll be a wonderful therapy dog. I showed with great pride my Good Dog Foundation certificate, like a college degree. I will frame it. Nina is about to enter a new life. It’s not about catching rabbits or barking at lawn mowers. It’s about helping people get better. And that includes me.

Pierre Gazarian is a poet and a writer of one-act plays. E-mail: [email protected]

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