Where We Went This Year! (22,000 miles of driving!)

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Des Moines

Well in fact: Yes. We did.

Drive straight through from Houston to Des Moines, that is. 14 Hours. Thass right. We bad.

You see, we've learned this little trick - if, contrary to our natural inclinations as actors and theater-type people, we rise in the early morning - yes, Virginia, there IS an early morning - we find that there are simply more hours in the day to make the drive. Strange how that works. There is, of course, early morning sleepiness to contend with, however I'm usually good in the mornings (Angie, decidedly, is not). So we worked it out that, having loaded the car the night before (made possible by the good climate in Houston and the fact that we were parked in a private driveway), we simply rose, bathed (somewhat marginally, admittedly), broke fast, and left. 8am, I'm pleased to say. Which, for us, is usually right around when the sheep we've been counting are discussing talking about considering the possibility of having a conversation regarding the available option at sometime in the relative future maybe possibly heading back to the barn.

I drove, Angie slept. Until about noon. Then she drove & I slept. And so on. We packed a lunch, dinner & snack. Stopped for gas, coffee, and pee-breaks. Basically pretty easy. Just gotta get psychologically used to the idea that you're sitting in the car for 14 hours. Good weather, too, although we watched the temperature gauge drop incrementally from 65 to 19, as we drove northward and into the night time.

We arrived at a perfect little home we'd rented on Craigslist. A two-bedroom house in Windsor Heights, about 4 miles from downtown. The lights were on, the heat was going, and it was a very gratefully-received midwestern welcome at which to arrive. I went to the grocery store & tanked up for the week. Angie unpacked. Butley sniffed around. We settled in for a long winter's night.

The next morning, we woke to a new day. A very New Day.

It was particularly nice to be in the city where Obama's serious contender-ship actually started, just about one year ago....and by the way, what was that on Aretha Franklin's head?

The big news, though, was an adventure upon which we had embarked a few weeks prior, and which we had come to Des Moines almost with more purpose than serving as company members in SPRING AWAKENING. Being on the road, it would be easy to walk the dog, feed the dog, leave the dog in the hotel room, come home & walk the dog, and go to sleep. But given the time that we have at our disposal, and given the fact that Butley's a pit bull and (both because of the headstrong nature of the breed and public perception or fear) it particularly behooves us to have a well-mannered dog, and the fact that Butley's such a natural charmer (making friends with hotel staff all over the US), we thought it would be a good project to train him to be a therapy dog. It would strengthen our relationship & handling skills, it would make for good PR for the breed, it wouldn't hurt - when checking into hotels - to be able to say our dog was a certified "Canine Good Citizen." All of that.

So - enter The Delta Society. The Delta Society is an organization - probably the premier national organization - that certifies dogs for use in therapeutic environments. Visiting patients in hospitals, seniors or people in hospice care, a conversational bridge to encourage interaction among people with Alzheimer's, a means for people going through physical rehabilitation to practice minor muscle control, such as might be used in brushing a dog. They also serve other purposes, such as reading partners for kids whose anxiety about reading aloud is reduced (and whose reading skills in general are improved) by having a furry friend to whom they can practice reading. They can visit half-way houses or demonstrate to ex-cons returning from an animal abuse conviction the more peaceful side of domestic pets (pit bulls in particular). And in conjunction with licensed therapists, they can help in psychotherapeutic environments, either as a means for people to confront their own anxieties about animal aggression or just to lower the blood pressure a little with the calming affect of their presence.

Their uses are probably only limited by imagination. and the purpose of the training is to establish not a "bomb-proof" dog, but one over whom the certified handler (the handlers are trained and evaluated as well) holds sufficient command and one who can serve as a reliable goodwill ambassador. They get acclimated to people who may act a little funny, move strangely, pet a little too roughly, be prone to loud outbursts, that kind of thing.

They're not service dogs. They're not legally allowed where animals usually are not. They're not crisis response dogs. They're not search & rescue dogs. They're just friendly, well-mannered good listeners who, in the hands of an equally-trained handler, can put up with some distraction, some unusual circumstances, some people that may not know how to put them at ease themselves.

Never gonna happen, Angie thought. That's a really hard test, her friend Lisa said. Doubts were shared, aspersions were cast. But I had faith. I understood the concerns - Butley can be willful, he can forge ahead, he can get over-excited, he can be a little much sometime. But at the very least, it seemed like a good goal to train towards. Just the training for it would be a good experience.

Now usually, Delta Society dogs go through a series of classes, run by Delta Evaluators. But they have a home study course, and we ordered the manual. It's not small. There's a lot of info, and a lot of training to cover. And there are regularly scheduled evaluation events, which - given our schedule - were usually not happening in the cities we were going to be in on the days we were going to be there. But I went online and contacted a few Delta Society evaluators, and was very taken by the willingness by some to be as flexible as they could.

By a stroke of heaven-sent good fortune, we made contact with Nicole & Eric Shumate, in Des Moines, IA. And what will become apparent in the ensuing story, I will summarize here by simply saying that they were everything we could possibly have hoped for and three times more. Where to begin?

• The long e-mail exchange between Nicole and me, in which I addressed, point for point, each behavior with Butley that needed the most attention, and in which she addressed, in great detail and with thorough examples, exercises we could do with Butley which would help put him (and us) in better control?

• The advice Nicole gave every step of the way about what to expect on the evaluation exam, ways to anticipate unfavorable responses from Butley, and ways to circumvent those responses?

• The daily availability that Nicole offered of the dog agility center she works with, Canine Craze, for Butley to come romp around in their 5,000 square foot indoor agility training room, burn off that cabin fever, and practice his obedience drills?

• The companionship that Nicole offered for Butley by bringing along Cadence, her and Eric's wonderfully playful and ridiculously fast catahoula leopard dog and Tag, a golden lab puppy in their care who's training for work as a service dog?

• The subsequent evaluations of Butley's behavior, in the training sessions and in playtime with Cadence & Tag, of his behavior, helping us read his body language and learn about ways to encourage the good stuff & discourage the bad?

• The offer of giving up their Sunday to give us a personal evaluation for Delta Society certification?

• The making of another room in Canine Craze available for the evaluation?

• The openness and neighborliness at every step along the way?

It goes without saying that without all this, Butley would never have had the chance to test as soon and as well as he did.

In a nutshell, HE PASSED WITH FLYING COLORS (you can read the evaluator's blog account of it here), and - pending approval of the registration packet - will soon be joining the ranks of certified, insured, and trusted animals on registry and available for therapeutic use of The Delta Society. He even got a "complex" rating, meaning he's certified to go into some of the more complex environments and keep his cool amidst distractions, etc.

And here are the photos we took for our ID badges, right after the triumphant exam:

Now of course, given that we're in a different city each week, it may be kind of hard for the next few months to actually schedule any Pet Partner visits while we're on the road, but we'll have four weeks in Boston, four weeks in DC... We can start working on those soon enough. But it's just cool to know that we achieved that little watermark of passing the evaluation. So - all ye in need of therapy, Dr. Butley Feelgood is ready to start spreading the love...

Honestly, at some point, this blog will return to extra-canine pursuits. At some point....

But not yet....

We were also able to arrange, in conjunction with Paws & Effect, a R.E.A.D event, a program in which Delta Society therapy dogs are made available to kids to read to, as a way of encouraging reading in general. It started out as just Angie and me, but as soon as I offered the chance to come in on a Saturday morning and sit with a bunch of dogs & read children's books to kids, ten other members of the SPRING AWAKENING company clamored to join us.

We even made the local 6 o'clock news.

I didn't know how many of them might actually make it to the reading, but they were there early, ready to read, and we had a terrific time rolling around with Jersey, the golden retriever, Jesse, the golden lab, Gizmo, a puggle-y sort of mutt, and a few other terrific dogs. Six, maybe, in total. And as we all read the stories, the kids leaned in & sat beside the dogs (some of whom looked so attentive to the readers, you would be excused for thinking they were taking notes), and we all had a rather unexpectedly serene Saturday morning, the dogs, the SA company, the kids, and the handlers and Paws & Effect crew, discussing the finer points of such literary masterworks as Goodnight Moon and Harry, The Dirty Dog.

Allow me to present the vixen of the group, Jersey, as she made her rounds...

Butley, alas, had to stay home - as yet untested at that point as he was. But he heard the stories, he's very envious, and he's looking forward to his chance at bat.

What else about Des Moines? Not much, frankly, as all the dog stuff took up most of our time. Des Moines was a great city to play - very smart, excited audiences. A real blessing after what proved to be a rather blasé crowd in Houston. Not that they were bad, but Houston's car-culture (much like LA) had droves leaving the theater during the curtain call, all in a rush to get to the valet parking ahead of everyone else. But not in Des Moines. We even had some brave souls out by the stage door after the show, in spite of the chilly, Des Moines winds. Iowa, we hardly knew ye...

1 comment:

Kate said...

WOW!! Congrats Butley (and angie and todd too). I used to bring our golden, Kelsey, to the nursing home where my grandmother was. Kelsey wasn't trained as a therapy dog but was so gentle and the residents loved her being there. I have thought about being officially trained with my other dogs...maybe when (and if) these lovely children ever leave the house for good...

can't wait to see you in just a few months!