General Non-Fiction posted June 5, 2024

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A dog is a dog!

by Wendy G

As many know, my dog Sunny works as a Therapy Dog one or two days a week. He is of mixed breed, where almost all the others are pure-bred. Not only so, but he is unique in his strange heritage. He looks quite unlike any other dog. Most people think there is some Dachshund and some Papillon in him, including the veterinarian and my Therapy Dogs supervisor.

However, his DNA shows some Maltese, some Border Collie, some Chihuahua, and some terrier, probably miniature Fox Terrier. He looks like a short-legged, and slightly elongated, fluffy Border Collie. I accept him as he is, and to me he is beautiful and special, regardless of his background.

But – he is a dog.

He is not my child, and I don’t want him to be my baby or my child. He’s not a doll to be dressed up either. I respect the fact that he is a dog. To me that is praiseworthy. Dogs are wonderful, with their loyalty, compassion and love, their lack of judgment, and their faithfulness. Humans do not always portray these qualities. I became a dog-owner because I wanted a dog. I wanted to experience that extra richness of having a dog within my life, nothing less.

The other dogs in the Therapy Dogs team are almost all female. And they are almost all dressed up in human garments. Some have dresses or frilly skirts for every occasion, for every movie theme, for every human celebration, and clothes for different nationalities. The other day the four Cavalier King Charles Spaniels dressed up as Dalmatians, as did their owner. Tonight they are wearing football jerseys to support their State football team. These four dogs have their own walk-in wardrobe filled with outfits, hundreds of them, if not thousands.

I don’t want Sunny dressed up. He’s a dog.

Yet I don’t really mind a dog wearing a birthday party hat for a few minutes, if he is comfortable with that. It makes for a fun photo. And in some climates, dogs do need a coat during bitterly cold temperatures - and that's fine, if it is for their comfort and well-being. Our winters are mild, however.

The other members of the team consider all this dressing up to be just a bit of fun, something to cheer people up. Perhaps that is all it is. But I can’t help feeling that dogs need to be accepted and respected just for being dogs. To me the dressing up distracts, and detracts from their “doghood”. It is demeaning.

I believe Sunny does offer therapy equally well just by being himself. He loves people and draws them to himself wherever he goes, whether officially “working” or not. I sensed that he was uncomfortable one time wearing a Santa hat made especially for him by one of the team members. I took it off him.

The other day all four other (female) dogs were dressed up as unicorns with rainbow manes and sequined horns. One dog was clearly uncomfortable with the hood constantly falling over her face – it needed to be folded back – but the outfit was not removed.

We were visiting a centre for adolescents with acute behavioural problems. I declined any outfit for Sunny. I excused him, saying that he was a male dog, who didn’t like dressing up, and that his view was that it was “fine to be different” and “okay to be himself”. The other team members accepted that, as appropriate for the venue – where self-acceptance is an important factor.

Sunny wore nothing but his own beautiful black and white fur coat and was equally well accepted by the teenagers. However, no photographs of him appeared on the group Facebook page, only photos of the “unicorns”. In fact, it’s quite a while since any photo of him has been on the Facebook page. Perhaps he is too ordinary, which is a bit disappointing. But he doesn’t do this for the publicity.

I really enjoy doing this work with Sunny, and I think (in fact, I know) he has a lot to give. But now I am starting to wonder whether the motives are not somewhat mixed for some of the team members.

I do not believe our purpose is to show off our dogs, and cheer people by having them laugh at how cute they look. I believe our purpose should not be dog-centred, but client-centred. Of course, the safety, comfort, and well-being of the dogs must be, and is, our first priority. But once we are assured of that, shouldn’t our next priority be to simply allow the dogs to be who they are? Dogs offering themselves to humans who need comfort, reassurance, and some love?

We are their handlers, and our focus too should be on the clients’ well-being; we should be focussed on listening if they wish to talk, and on offering the same acceptance and comfort, not on feeling inordinately proud of some garment our dog is wearing and chatting non-stop about their breed or their outfits. I feel my role is to complement that of Sunny, to be a listener, and to be one who shows I care.

I was also asked the other day if I shouldn’t be using the word “they” for his pronoun. I found I had to defend myself calling him a “he”. It’s interesting that all the dogs are clearly one gender or the other, and there is no spectrum of gender in the world of dogs. So, I will continue to refer to him as “he” and “him”, at the risk of being politically incorrect and old-fashioned, and perhaps rigid in my thinking.

Up to this point both he and I have been accepted – because he really does do a fine job, and because I can read his needs so well. However, I am starting to feel like a bit of an outsider in some ways, just a little uncomfortable at being different. I don’t have rainbow hair, nor striped hair, like some owners do, and I don’t even wear false eyelashes. Neither of us dresses up as a Dalmatian nor an Easter Bunny.

On the other hand, I have been asked to lead teams on occasions, watching over other team members and dogs. The supervisor organised a regular hospital visitation program for Sunny and me on Wednesdays, because I can’t attend the normal Monday program. Furthermore, Sunny is the only Therapy Dog allowed to do Palliative Care visits. The supervisor is therefore pleased with his performance.

I guess I’ll just have to hope for continued acceptance, so that both he and I can continue doing our thing in our own quiet way, both of us just plain and ordinary. I’m probably a bit of an enigma. We both are.



I'd be interested to hear what you think. Am I just being too conservative?
Yet I want to stay true to myself and to Sunny as a dog.
Pays one point and 2 member cents.

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