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Therapy Dog Accidentally Finds Work at the Office

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I picked my puppy out of a photo-line up on the internet classifieds one summer Saturday afternoon, called the seller and told her I would be there in the morning to pick her up. Don't let anyone else take her, I said. She belongs to me.

My decision was confirmed when I arrived to find her the smallest of a litter of four, definitely in charge, curious and affectionate. She was bred in Minnesota, near where my family had enjoyed summer outings at my brother-in-law's lakehouse on the White Fish Chain near Brainerd. Knowing she was a Midwest girl gave me confidence that she would have a head on her shoulders. The litter was shipped off to Phoenix for showing and selling because her hometown was too tiny to support the breeder's work. Part Shih Tzu and part Yorkshire Terrier, she weighed 2.8 pounds and was born on April Fool's Day. I named her April on the spot and took her home.

It didn't take me long to start thinking of April as a potential therapy dog. She was friendly, adorable, and incredibly social. While she enjoyed playing with her toys, nothing interested her more than playing with people. My son fell in love with her and began to visit more than usual, referring to her as a little ball of sunshine. We hired a trainer who, after getting to know April, agreed that she was a natural for therapy service, saying such dogs were born, not taught. We set a goal of having her ready for the certification test by the time she was a year old, the minimum testing age.

Part of our assignment was to introduce April to situations as similar as possible to the hospitals, nursing homes, or children's facilities where therapy dogs traditionally work. Owner of a business with more than 35 office employees in two locations, it seemed the perfect place to practice. So I began taking her to work from time to time. The best opportunity was in the accounting and administrative area, two open rooms with a total of eight desks. In our business, these are the most structured jobs with repetitive monthly deadlines and predictable tasks. There are no outside meetings, no surprises, and no breaks from number crunching and paper pushing. Most of the women are long term employees who have been faithfully coming to work every weekday morning at 8 am for years. I would quietly open the door and let April loose so she could tear around the corner into the room unannounced, greeted by squeals of delight.

Not wanting to seem like the owner who was simply indulging the right to parade my puppy around the office, I explained to the ladies of accounting and admin that April was on her way to becoming a therapy dog and they would be helping those who April would someday help by assisting in her training and preparation. They enthusiastically agreed. The trainer arranged a visit to the office to teach the ladies how to teach April the good habits that would help her pass her test. My vice president, the department's supervisor, confided in me that she had never seen her workers so excited about anything. All they could talk about was April.

When it was time for April to get spayed, the department sent an e-mail saying they were praying for her and hoped she would bounce back right away. When the holiday season arrived, they snuck an opportunity to measure her, using adding machine tape, for a custom Arizona Cardinals outfit they had made for her. It appeared wrapped under the company tree along with a card featuring her picture on the front and a poem inside. In exchange, we gave photographs of April with each worker taken on the day the trainer came to visit.

The manner in which my accounting and administrative staff took to a little dog who occasionally stopped by was astounding and taught me a lot about my own company. Clearly while they were helping to train a therapy dog, April had become their therapy dog, giving me a first hand opportunity to see why these programs are so successful in more traditional settings. I have come to believe that my office bound employees probably enjoy similar benefits from the occasional presence of a small dog as an old person confined to a nursing home or even a sick child. It just makes them feel better.

I have since learned of the wonderful work being done by psychiatric service dogs who assist veterans with crippling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. A US Postal worker is allowed to bring his service dog along on his daily route to help keep him calm and focused. And a friend of mine recently told me about a Vietnam combat veteran who brought his small terrier service dog on the back of his motorcycle to their high school reunion. The veteran said that without his dog, he would never have been able to handle the stress of attending the event.

The traditional American office with its computers, cubicles, long hours and regimented schedules can create its own stress. Most employees actually spend more time with their co-workers in the office than they do with family at home and in many ways, the same challenges apply to both situations. I like the message it sends to my staff that we can take a break to enjoy the unconditional love and affection that only a pet can offer. And a good therapy dog knows just how to interact with each person, responding to their personal signals, knowing when to sit quietly to be petted, when to be playful, and when to simply leave someone alone who doesn't wish to be bothered. Just such an employee confided to me that April had recently climbed onto her lap where she sat quietly for fifteen minutes. Knowing this was one of the workers who had chosen not to interact with April on her visits, I apologized for what I assumed was an intrusion. She immediately said no, it was no intrusion at all and was not an interruption of her duties as she continued to take phone calls and work on the computer while April kept her company.

These are tough times. A visit from a good therapy dog can provide immeasurable benefits at a time when we could all use a little cheering up. When April becomes a certified therapy dog and is dispatched into the field, I am going to make sure to include visits to our office on her schedule. Good workers come in all shapes and sizes. This one just happens to weigh 8 pounds.

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