The True Value Of A Therapy Dog

The True Value Of A Therapy Dog
by Ben Balser 

Hello, I’m Ben, Laticia’s husband. She asked me to publish this true story about what happened to Corrine (our female GSD) and I one day while running errands. So, well, here goes…

A couple of months ago I was out running errands. While driving down Airline Highway I passed a couple of old guys selling watermelons and strawberries and such. I thought my kids would love a good watermelon, and I’m a sucker for Louisiana-grown strawberries (some of the best in the world). So I figured on my way back home I’ll stop off and get some.

Driving back home I stopped in as planned. The older gentleman was very nice. I had our GSD Corrine in the back of the car. I’d left the windows open as she likes to stick her head out and watch what’s going on. She was being very well behaved, quiet, just watching with that huge goofy GSD tongue hanging out, ears up, eyes wide, curious about the whole world.

As the old man and I were concluding our business he said, “That dog bite? It can’t get out can it?” I assured him Corrine was not getting out of the car, and that she was a very good puppy. Well, a 70-pound “puppy”, but not quite 2 years old yet. He still seemed wary, so I explained her status to him, in order to help calm him. He was pretty agitated. “I don’t know, as long as she can’t get out. I hate dogs. Nothing personal, but I don’t want nothing to do with no damned dog.”

I saw this was going to be a very difficult sell, but something inside me was insisting I do this, that I give it my very best effort. So I swallowed, took a deep breath, and dove into the task head first.

I explained that Corrine is an exceptionally well-behaved dog, is an AKC titled Canine Good Citizen, as well as a Registered Therapy Dog. He didn’t know what a therapy dog was so I told him she is trained to let folks pet her, and be nice to them, and how every weekend, practically, she visits a retirement home or a hospital so folks can pet her. She helps folks be calm, makes them smile, draws them out to talk, be social, and be happy. I explained that the Canine Good Citizen title means she is well socialized, she gets along with other dogs, and with people outside of her family very well.

He seemed to calm down a bit, and it made him very curious. “I never knew you could train a dog like that. Is all that true? She really that friendly?” “Yes sir, she sure is! She makes old folks and children who are lonely and sick happy and lets them pet her and talk to her. That’s her job, and she’s good at it. She’s there to help folks however she can. That’s what she does.” He then showed me his right hand. It was covered in very bad scars, skin that hadn’t healed correctly, a crookedness to it that was quite odd and hard to put into words.

He explained to me that he had gone to pet a dog when he was young and that the dog bit him. Not only bit him but pulled and chewed and mangled his hand pretty badly. He’s hated dogs every since. Never wanted to be near one, never wanted to talk about them, wanted nothing at all to do with them his whole life. “Especially those attack breeds like German Shepherds and Rottweilers. No offense to your dog. But isn’t that what they’re bred for? No way, man, don’t want no dogs around here.” He was trying to be polite to a customer but was obviously very agitated and nervous.

“Oh, heck no sir! German Shepherds were bred to herd sheep and cows and protect them from wolves.” I expressed my sympathy for what had happened to his hand and explained it wasn’t the breed, it wasn’t the dog, it was the owner. A good owner gets their dog trained, socialized and has a happy, well-behaved dog who loves everyone. A bad owner doesn’t tend to their dog’s needs, never trains them properly, probably mistreats them, even if not on purpose, and ends up with a mean dog that misbehaves. Some folks train their dogs to be mean and do bad things, but that’s still on the owner, not the dog. That is abusing the dog, plain and simple.

The whole time Corrine was sitting at the car window, looking out, her huge goofy tongue hanging out, watching us, just relaxed as a dog could be. I asked if he would please come over and see Corrine up close. He didn’t have to touch her or anything, just come close and see her. He hesitantly agreed. I was doing my best song and dance to get this to happen. I just felt for some reason I could NOT lose this golden opportunity for Corrine to do what she was trained to do - be a therapy dog in the truest sense.

The old man slowly approached, I stayed to the side, but still between him and Corrine to act as a psychological barrier. She stretched her neck to sniff him, licked her lips and panted, still very calm and relaxed. He came a bit closer, close enough to touch her, but kept his hands back away from her. “Yeah, she’s very nice. She’s a really pretty girl, too. I guess you’re right.” I said, IF you want to let her sniff the back of your hand, it’s safe, it’s ok. I promise. You should always offer a dog the back of your hand when you meet one for the first time.” “I don’t know about that,” he said. I said “It’s OK, you don’t have to. I’d just hate to see you miss the chance to make a really good friend with this little girl here.”

Then slowly, he offered Corrine the back of his hand. She sniffed it and started to immediately lick it. Maybe it was the smell of fruit. Maybe she knew he needed to be loved by a dog for once. Maybe to a dog, it’s all the same thing. But she licked his hand. He started to turn to let her have his palm. She licked his scars, she licked his palm, she rubbed the side of her face in his hand. She only does that with me and my wife, by the way. Never seen her do that with many other folks.

I thought it was a beautiful moment and was trying not to let my tears go. I was very proud of Corrine. This man who has spent the better part of his life hating dogs because of what one stupid owner let their dog do to him. I heard the old man sniffle. I looked up at his face, he had tears in his eyes. He said, “I have never wanted to touch a dog before. I’ve always hated them so much. But she is beautiful, she’s so gentle, she’s so kind.” It took everything for me not to loose it right then and there.

“Well, she is a therapy dog, and this is what she was born and trained to do. She’ll never be a police dog, I can assure you of that.” He said, “Oh hell, she’s better than a police dog. I can’t believe I’m petting a dog.” He was petting her all over her head and neck and Corrine was eating it up, loving the attention. Which is typical of her.

When we were done, I had to leave and take care of my other errands for the day. As we said goodbye, he told me that Corrine was welcome to come hang out with him at his fruit stand anytime. He said he’d be very happy to have her around.

I cried on the way home a little bit because I was so proud of how well Corrine was with the old man. How I could at least give him one experience of how a really sweet a dog can be. Everyone needs to know the truth, that dogs only want to be our friends, and do what they can to make us happy. That makes them happy. That experience will be with me for the rest of my life. Even long after Corrine is gone, I will remember what a small miraculous thing she did for that old man. She will forever be a very special girl to me, and that day made her more so. She’s not perfect, she’s not like that all the time. But then, she’s still a puppy. But she made one old man with a horrible memory of dogs change his mind about her.

So that’s my one special story about Corrine. She may not have saved a life, but she changed someone’s mind about dogs. And that is a really big achievement.