From about two days after I acquired Luke the Dog, I realized that I had a very special animal on my hands.  Or rather, I realized for perhaps the first time how special dogs could be.  I had a couple of cats growing up that I loved (I still love cats, too), but we never had a dog.  My mom wasn’t interested in having a dog mainly because of the mess—not a judgment, just a statement (Hi, mom!).

Through our first few months together, my opinion of my dog was only reinforced.  He was flying through his training courses.  He was super friendly.  He was just a great, great dog.  And I started looking around for ways to get him more engaged.  I very quickly stumbled across the Delta Society, an organization that helps to train and evaluate dogs for therapy work.  Luke was too young, and a little too energetic to get started on therapy work right away.  Also, you have to have known or lived with your animal for a minimum of six months before you can be evaluated.  But I knew that one day he’d be a great therapy animal.

Then life intervened.  My carefully constructed world in Utah disintegrated in pretty short order.  I moved to Seattle.  I changed careers.  I went back to school.  I changed jobs again.  I got busy and distracted, and spent some time dealing with a some pretty major personal demons.  And while I never forgot the therapy animal training, it had just been de-prioritized.  Along the way, I met a wonderful neighbor, a woman named Carol, who has the sweetest little beagle named Riley.  And Riley, as it turns out, is a registered Delta Society therapy animal.

Luke loves Carol and Riley.  It has a lot to do with the fact that Carol always has treats.  He can be a block away and hear, smell, or see Carol and Riley, and he will pull me all the way down the road behind him like he was a husky and I the dogsled.  And Carol loves Luke.  Time and time again she urged me to get Luke enrolled in therapy dog training.  He’d be great at it.  He’d love it.  I’d love it.

So, this March, when I noticed in the City of Redmond community activity catalog that there was going to be a Therapy Dog training course, I was excited.  I had changed jobs, I had a bit more free time, I was looking for some way to provide some service.  It was great timing.  So, I sent in my $200 and I enrolled in class.

The classes were really fun.  Every Thursday, I’d leave work early, run home, throw Luke in the car, and drive to Healing Paws for training.  It was very different than many of the other training classes that I’ve attended, because the focus was on getting the animals and handlers trained for a very specific task—getting through the evaluation.  All our previous training experience had been on general obedience and basic tricks.  And Luke was a superstar at that.  In this training, though, the dogs weren’t even allowed to meet each other and interact.  The training was rigorous, but enjoyable, and I got to spend time with Luke.

Luke did well.  With the exception of a couple of minor tasks, he was a superstar.  There was one task, in particular, with which he struggled, though.  At one point in the evaluation, the handler must put the dog in a sit/stay, then walk back from the dog 10 feet.  At that point, the evaluator would come up to the dog and pet it, and the dog would have to stay.  Then, the handler would call the dog to come, and the dog would leave the petting, and return to the handler.  Luke was usually so excited about getting petted that he would stand up and rush over to the evaluator.  Or, when he was being petted, he would often fail to heed my “come” command because he was enjoying it so much.

The other area in which he struggled was in leaving toys/food/unknown items alone when we walked by them.  This had always been a difficulty of his, but we were working on it, and he was making very, very good progress.  To help him along, I taught him a whole new command (using “not now” instead of the far more common “leave it.”)

In all, throughout the process, my confidence grew.  Luke was getting back up to speed on his obedience training, as was I, and I was certain that pretty soon, he and I were going to be able to start visiting nursing home or hospices to provide a little distraction and comfort to the residents and patients.  As my confidence grew, though, so did a couple of niggling little doubts that had taken hold in the back of my mind, even before we started taking the class.  First, Luke, while a very sweet dog, isn’t really a cuddler or a snuggler.  He likes people, but generally, only specific people that he knows or strangers in a familiar environment like our apartment complex.  He can be a bit insecure and, when he’s feeling crowded, can be a little snippy.  And, of course, I always knew that he doesn’t really feel comfortable around most kids, which is why I was planning on visiting nursing homes and hospice situations.  But, I was certain that, because our training was going so well, Luke was overcoming some of his insecurities.

On Thursday night, after eight weeks of class, it was time for our Mock Evaluation, which is the final preparation before the real evaluation a week thereafter.  We were the first team to go.  I was calm and relaxed, sure we were going to do fine.  The mock evaluation is supposed to be a role play of what you might experience at a real site visit.  So, we began by greeting the “site administrator” and doing introductions.  Then she walked around behind the dog (some dogs don’t like people behind them), then greeted him.  It went very well.

Next, we did the “out for a walk" portion, where I had to prove that he could walk next to me, stopping when I did.  It went well.  We practiced “walking through a crowd” and “not reacting to a surprising noise” and “being bumped into by a stranger.”  Luke was doing a great job.  My confidence was increasing.  Then we got to the trouble area: the sit/stay exercise I described above.  He did it perfectly.  Things were going really, really well.

Then we came to the “being groomed and inspected portion.”  The evaluator needs to pet him on the head, look in his ears, check his teeth, manipulate his paws, legs, and tail, and then, give him a restrictive hug.  We had never practiced this before.  As soon as she started manipulating his paws, I could feel him tense up immediately.  He started leaning into me, which was his indication that he wasn’t very happy with what was going on.  When she knelt down to give him a hug, he rumbled in his throat a little: A precursor to a growl.  The evaluator told me that, had this happened in the real evaluation, the evaluation would be stopped immediately and we would be marked as “not ready.”  I was officially rattled.

We proceeded on to the next couple of tasks, which he did pretty well, and then we got to the exercise in which Luke would be surrounded by a group of four different people, all petting him at the same time.  He was not having it.  He started baring his teeth and growling full-out at this point.  I called an immediate end to the mock evaluation right then and there.  There was no question: he had failed miserably.  The instructor said that Luke certainly had “the potential” to do therapy work, and that I should work with him over the next week.  Luke and I were the first group to go through the mock evaluation, so I had to sit there for the next two and a half hours while six of the seven remaining dogs breezed through the evaluation.  (One other dog, the one that went right after me, had been problematic throughout the whole process, so his lack of success was unsurprising.)

I was devastated.  What I had seen in that mock evaluation was new to the trainer and my classmates, but not to me.  Luke has a history of being insecure and uncomfortable in social situations.  He’s not, as I had always known, a dog who needs to be smothered with attention, and often prefers to be on his own.  I thought, because the training was going so well, and it had been so long since we had any incidents of him acting so uncomfortable, he was improving.  But, in one fell swoop, I knew that I had just witnessed confirmation that, despite how much I wanted it, Luke was not interested in being a therapy animal.  At all. 

I had in my mind this idea of how great it was going to be for Luke and I to go to the neighborhood nursing homes and senior centers and visit with folks—making them feel better, making me feel better, and allowing Luke and I to spend so much more time together doing something constructive.  I saw it all go up in smoke in that 15-minute period of time.  I was disappointed in Luke, upset that he wasn’t the dog I wanted him to be.  I was mad at myself for not doing a better job of socializing him when he was younger and impressionable, choosing instead to be socially isolated. I was mad I had spent $250 in class and material fees, and another $400 in vet bills to get him checked out and vaccinated for these classes.

After class, I spoke with the instructor and told her that we wouldn’t be taking part in the evaluation the following week.  Nearly in tears, I explained that I was afraid that Luke just wasn’t interested in doing this—and certainly not as much as I was.  I thanked her for the class, which I truly loved, and offered some of my non-canine expertise with future classes (a volunteer for the evaluations, video/audio expertise, etc.)  And then I drove home.

I have experienced a lot of disappointment in my life.  I think that’s true of most people.  I was pretty disappointed on our drive back.  As were on the way back though, Luke, who was standing in the back seat of the car, stood right behind me and rested his chin on my shoulder.  It was almost like he was telling me that he was sorry for disappointing me.  Of course, my heart melted.  I had been trying so hard to make Luke into what I wanted him to be, instead of trying to figure out who he was.  Yeah, I’m still really disappointed we won’t get to do therapy work, but that doesn’t mean I love him any less.

I have to imagine that I got a glimpse of what my parents must have felt when I told them that I was gay.  Luke is just a dog, but I had tried to map out his life for him because I love my dog.  I thought for sure that it would make him so happy if he could just get over his fear.  But, it turns out that he’s just not a therapy animal, and no amount of pushing or prodding is going to change that.  But, Luke is a dog.  He’s not a child.  I didn’t give birth to him.  You can’t legally put children in cages when they misbehave.

I know, beyond doubt, that my parents had at least a basic roadmap for my life planned out.  School.  Mission.  College.  Marriage.  Job.  Kids.  Church Callings. Grandkids. Retirement.  The circle of life.  And I know, also beyond doubt, that they had this roadmap not because they were controlling, but because they loved me.  And also, because that’s just part of the plan.  But, that’s not what was in store for me.  And to their credit, they have continued to love me, as all good parents should.  (Seriously, parents who throw their kids out for announcing they are gay should be rounded up and thrown in jail. In Iran.)

So, Luke won’t be a therapy dog.  He’s probably never going to love being around kids (unless I ever have a child, and he can get acclimated to it.)  He’ll still be his happy-go-lucky self, he’ll love all the neighbors, worship anyone who will give him a treat, and go out of his way to play with every single dog within a 100-mile radius.  And that’s okay.  I don’t need a working animal.  It would have been nice, but it’s not the end of the world.  I still love my dog, I’m just a little disappointed.

  • Billy

    I’m sorry to hear as I could tell you were very much looking forward to it.  Luke is quite the special animal and you a special person for recognizing the situation and accepting it.  Some people would continue to try to force their pet into something for which they are not suited.  

  • Vanessa G.

    Luke is a very lucky dog to have such a doting dad.  I always enjoy reading your blog, Matt.  You have a really gifted way of writing your emotions.

    xx