The journey of a Wannabe Therapy Dog

It is proven that animals can help enormously to lower anxiety levels and reduce stress. Join Xaby and me as Xaby trains to become a Therapy Dog. Written by Ollie Coach, Marie Collett

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PUPPY POWER!!!

Xabier Zabier arrived on Friday 8th May 2020.  

We collected Xabier and brought him home in the foot well of our car, as instructed by the breeder.  He settled at my feet with a puppy toilet training pad underneath him in case of any accidents and it meant I could be close to him, stroke and reassure him whilst in a car for the first time on our short journey home.  Although Xabier,  Xaby for short, an 8-week-old German Shepherd was not worried or phased at all, he got himself comfy, snuggled in and fell straight to sleep!

I have had three dogs previously, a Doberman, a Dalmatian and my last dog, a Husky named Zeus, who died 3 years ago and it now felt right, while I had more time at home and during lockdown, with my husband and three grown up sons, to get a puppy and give him the attention and love he needed. 

Over the last year I have been training to be an Ollie Coach with “Ollie and his Superpowers” an army of people dedicated to help with the “Emotional Wellbeing” of children and adults of all ages and abilities.  I decided I would try and team this up with training my own therapy dog who could eventually work along side me helping and adding extra value to my coaching.  It is proven that animals can help enormously to lower anxiety levels and reduce stress.  Playing and petty an animal can increase levels of the stress-reducing hormone oxytocin and decrease production of the stress hormone cortisol.  These hormonal changes can help a nervous child/adult feel more relaxed in many situations e.g. reading aloud, communication skills, help concentration levels and benefit physical health.

 As I have had no specific dog training experience and have never been to classes before with any of my other dogs, I investigated what would be required to achieve this goal.

To become a therapy dog (PAT) Pets At Therapy - you must have owned your dog for at least six months, they must be aged nine months or more.  All dogs must pass a temperament test to make sure they are friendly with all sorts of people, happy to be petted and not spooked by novel situations. 

Things the dog must not do when being assessed to be a PAT dog:

Jumping up – this behaviour could potentially cause injury by knocking over an elderly person or child for example.

Pawing – putting up one or both paws – again, this can cause injury to delicate skin.

Backing away when being petted – any dog that displays a reluctance to be patted or shows signs of anxiety will not be passed.

Barking/Growling – obviously, this sort of behaviour could be seen as quite threatening to old people or children, which is the opposite of how a PAT dog needs to behave.

Mouthing/Licking – again this can cause potential injury and licking is not accepted on hygiene grounds.

Snatching food – anything that involves teeth to skin contact including snatching titbits would likewise be unacceptable.

So, after reading the above rules I realised that he and I were going to have to put serious time and effort into our work together to make him the best puppy he could be for the job!

After arriving home and meeting his new family, Xaby set about sniffing around and getting familiar with his new surroundings.  It soon became clear that mouthing, nibbling, and chewing were his favourite activities.  I was ready for this and knew from experience that teething problems are the same for puppies as for human babies and that chewing reliefs some of the pain.  He is like a little piranha with razor sharp tiny teeth never giving up until he finds something to sooth his irritation.  I had plenty of chew toys and had put a small plastic bottle filled with water in the freezer at the ready for him, which helps numb and calm his gums for a while at least. 

German Shepherds were bred to heard sheep by nipping and mouthing at their feet and legs to round them up, the technical term for this is ‘gripping’ and this instinct is in his DNA.

 And so, we reached our first hurdle within an hour or so of getting him home! 

We need to make sure he plays gently and teach him not to nip or mouth human skin or feet in socks, the boy’s white sports socks specifically, although this attraction could be due to them having smelly feet!

This however is proving to be a TRICKY task; he is SLOWLY getting a LITTLE bit better at it.  The idea is to always have a chew toy or hide bone at the ready and swap human skin for the chew and soon (hopefully) he’ll learn the difference between what he’s allowed to chew on what he’s NOT! He seems to have a “CRAZY TIME” in the evenings for about an hour between 6pm and 7pm when he gets very excitable indeedy and then I’m clock watching for 8pm bedtime! Although I can’t complain because he’s a really good sleeper and doesn’t wake until 6.30am, when the fun starts all over again!

Routine is how puppies learn so we go outside regularly for a bursts of playtime to tire him out and to teach him where to do his business, which he is very quickly getting the hang of,  only having had a couple of accidents indoors to date.

The good weather we have been having has made it easy for him to get outside and he loves to play in water! I’ve laid a hard-plastic shallow lipped tray in the garden and use a watering can to fill it so he can splash around to his hearts content and keep cool.  Another welcomed treat is when a small bowl of ice cubes makes it way to him which he immediately tips over and crunches away on while lounging under the table in the shade contemplating a nap.  He certainly keeps me on my toes at the moment and is well pandered to!!!

We are well set up for having dogs where I live in the country and from previous experience I have learnt that getting them used to short periods of outside alone time in a safe environment is very helpful for the sanity of both owner and pup!

So Xaby goes to what we call “Playgroup” from 8am till 9am, a fenced shady, concreted enclosure containing a kennel, comfy dog mat and plenty of chew toys for him to entertain himself.   There’s always a  stainless steel water bowl filled for him to drink from whenever he chooses, although his favourite trick is too put his paws in the water,  tip it up, drink from the puddle and then lay in it, especially in the warm weather. My plan is to slowly extend his time at “Playgroup” so eventually when he’s older he can be left happily and in the fresh air or snuggle in his kennel for a few hours when I’m not able to be with him.

Once he’s out of his enclosure I’m ready for him with some FULL on “playtime”!

Dogs rarely do their business in the same area they live or sleep, so first requirement is a quick stroll to let him relieve himself.  Then on to a “tug of war” game, using a strong length of rope or rubber toy that I hold tight one end and he grips with his teeth on the other.  Him pulling me around and me pulling him around is sure to ware us both out, so at the moment it lasts around 5 mins before it’s time to move on to teaching him how to chase a ball.  This isn’t as easy as it may sound! You would think it was an instinctive thing for a dog to chase and retrieve a ball but not all dogs find it that easy especially when they’re young.  I’ve found that a squeaky ball captures Xabys attention, so when he does eventually chase and grab it he spends a while laying on the ground gnawing at it.  Just over the last few days  he’s  become strong enough to get a satisfying squeak too, which you can tell makes him proud of himself.  He hasn’t yet mastered bringing the ball back to me but he’s enjoying the game so far and it has the desired effect of tiring him and keeping him mentally stimulated.  When he’s done with concentrating he’s ready for some free time sniffing around and exploring, chasing flies, birds, and rooting in the grass for ants and any other creepy crawlies that are unfortunate enough to be in his range of smell!

Xaby really has been busy over the last month, learning about his new environment and the rules of his family.  I have been getting him used to going for a drive daily around the farm roads.  He has a medium sized travel crate in the boot of the car, again with a comfy dog bed and toys, this is important for him to get used to motion as some dogs can suffer with travel sickness so its best to start them off early to make it part of their routine and training.  We have also been going out in our small farm truck where he sits in the front seat with his dog harness on (the equivalent of a seat belt) which he enjoys and after a while of sitting up and looking around he settles on the seat, curls up and often drifts off for one of his many naps.

I have always crate trained my dogs and am used to setting and sticking to a routine for sleep, feeding and bedtime, he has settled in very well and has slept through the night from day one, which surprised me,  and I even sneaked down stairs into the kitchen to take a peak under the blanket I place over his crate at night,  just to make sure he was ok!  Which of course he was, snoozing away no doubt dreaming of what new adventures and mischiefs lay ahead the next day! 

He really has got Puppy Power and has charmed his way into our lives very quickly and we love him! So, keep posted for the next update of the adventures, thrills and trials of his progress……

Marie Collett, Ollie Coach

My husband and I live on a farm in the Fens and we have three grown boys.  My intention for the past few years has been to open up my home as a day centre for children of varying ages and abilities for them to get the opportunity to enjoy and benefit from life in the open countryside for both their emotional and physical wellbeing.  So, I trained to be an “Ollie Coach” so that I could help the children be all they can be.  I also wanted to introduce a therapy dog into the equation to help me in my quest and bring some extra joy, comfort and unconditional love to the venture.

To get in contact with Marie, email Marie.collett@ollieandhissuperpowers.com

To find out more about Ollie and his Super Powers and how to become an Ollie Coach go to www.ollieandhissuperpowers.com

Caroline Chipper

Director, Subconquest Ltd - Ollie and his Super Powers

Co founder of Subconquest Ltd, that trades as Ollie and his Super Powers. My many years of commercial experience is being put to good use managing the business side of Ollie, including working with our Ollie Coaches, and managing our contracts. In everything we do its about making a difference to those we work with. To find out more go to https://www.ollieandhissuperpowers.com/pages/about-us

2 Comments

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Janette 3 months ago

Great read , beautiful dog will look forward to hearing and following his journey 

Go to the profile of Janette
Janette 3 months ago

Great read Will enjoy following  his journey