Speaking of Animal Assisted Therapy – The Problem With Parental Expectations

My human child is now 32 and well launched in life. My horses are older geldings who are set in their ways and long ago trained me to fit their comfort zones. I can say that I have not had as many struggles where parental expectations are concerned in recent years. At least that was true until Jack arrived on the scene.

Jack is my 3 year old Great Pyrenees dog. He is big, 37 inches tall and 110 lbs.  He is beautiful with a thick white mane and sparkling dark eyes. He is smart and able to learn fast, at times surprising me with his ability to communicate a problem or need. In many ways Jack is the dog of my dreams, but he has also presented me with a huge challenge in the realm of parental expectations.  Since day one I have had my heart set on Jack becoming a therapy dog; but I am having to face the fact that he may not be cut out for the job.

Jack loves people but he loves them so much that he wants to sniff them and kiss them unendingly. Jack is highly motivated but he gets so excited that he wants to do everything at once and has trouble focusing on commands and letting the human reach out to him first. While these aspects of Jack’s personality may be modified through continued training and experience, it is hard to picture him ever achieving a very high level of self-containment.

Another problem is that Jack seems to be greatly in need of therapy himself! Jack has anxieties. He is afraid of thunder and lightening. He is also afraid of riding in the car. He is afraid of motors and the sound of equipment. One of his demons is the sound of a space heater whirring away.  Happily, after many efforts on his and my part, he is doing better with some of these. He is willing to ride in the car and he will get in on his own. He has learned to navigate some stores but Home Depot with all of the machines and equipment is still not his idea of a fun outing.

The worst problem of all, though, is that Jack does not get along well with other dogs. He is having a hard time mastering the social skills he needs to work in conjunction with other dogs, a requirement for becoming a certified therapy dog. Put simply, Jack does not play well with others; and, with a dog of his stature, this is not a problem that can be solved by taking him to a dog park and just letting him work it out.

Luckily, Jack has a wonderful dog trainer named Mary Jo.  Mary Jo is Jack’s biggest fan next to me. She accepts him and understands him and she has lots of great ideas about how to address his “issues”. Mary Jo is responsible for much of the progress Jack and I have made. We have participated in her level 1, 2 and 3 obedience classes for almost a year now, learning the basic commands like sit, down and walk on a leash, perfecting these and being able to do them despite distraction, and going on outings to public places like Target, Barnes & Noble and Home Depot..


Mary Jo’s assessment of Jack’s relationship difficulties is that he has a problem with personal space. She believes he does not have confidence about his personal space due to not getting out and socializing much with other dogs except our female Great Pyrenees, Isabelle, when he was a puppy.  To compound the problem, a dog of Jack’s size has a very big personal space. So far it seems that his personal space is as big as the entire enclosed training facility. (He does better outside.) Jack exhibits a troubling behavior when approached by other dogs.  He makes a guttural sound and stiffens his front legs in a stomping motion.  This is very intimidating to both me and the other dog and his or her walker. Over time I have lost my confidence in his ability to socialize and we all know that when we lose confidence in our kids, nothing good comes of it.

I am afraid I have painted a picture mainly of Jack’s problems. Actually he has some big accomplishments. .  He has many Level 2 and 3 certificates. He has a solid down and stay and he comes like a freight train when I leave him in the training room or outdoor ring and call him from a distance. He passed his American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen Test. (He did have to take it twice and we did have to stay pretty wide on the exercise where we walk past another dog and owner and I stop and shake the other owner’s hand.) But this was definitely a high point for me in terms of parental expectations. Mary Jo tries to be objective but I think she was excited too.


At this point Mary Jo and I have decided we are going to change over to one on one training sessions and take on the socialization issue more directly. She even has a dog in mind who will be given the chance to become Jack’s first friend. I am going to have to work on my fears too if he is to have any chance to grow.

I am beginning to realize that I may need to work on not only my fears but my hopes and expectations for Jack if he is to prosper. This probably means accepting that my picture of Jack participating in a Kindly Canines Reading Night at the local library or visiting nursing home residents will never happen. I may have to settle for just being able to walk with him in the horse pasture or be happy that all our work and training has made it possible for him to attend Take Your Dog to the Ballgame Night at the Reading Phillies.

Actually changing my parental expectations holds a lot of hope for our relationship. Like all children, Jack is incredibly lovable and full of joy.  He is my buddy and is a cuddle bug who wants nothing more than to lie next to me and have his head rubbed or lean into me so that we are truly joined at the hip!  There is not a more beautiful sight than seeing him roam the pasture and suddenly lift his head and look to be sure I am over by the gate.

Actually our night at the Reading Phillies game was a peak experience. After making our way through the milling crowds of people and dogs, Jack, my husband and I found a spot on the deck near the pic nic tables where there was enough room for Jack. He stretched out to his full length and happily let adults admire him and children pat him. He ate a plate of French fries and drank water out of a cup. We decided it was best to leave before dark so we could get Jack safely back to the car and home in time for bed. My husband was disappointed that we did not see the whole game. I reminded him that taking Jack to the game was similar to taking a 4 or 5 year old. The whole idea was to let go of expectations and just have fun!


About Pathfinder Pursuits

Camille is a licensed clinical social worker and writer. She is the author of the Quincy the Horse children's books.
This entry was posted in Animal Assisted Psychotherapy, Life in General, Mental Health & Psychotherapy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s