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Welsh Terrier - Baxter on the Couch
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Welsh Terrier - Baxter the Therapy Dog
The Therapy Dog
AKC Gazette
Monday - May 12, 2000
Therapy Dog

This story was originally prepared for the AKC Gazette, but was not used. It was subsequently published in the RIT Hospital Newsletter, and has been seen on the Welsh List in several modified versions.

Baxter is a very cute, intelligent, willful and head strong Welsh Terrier - actually fairly typical of his breed. He is our first dog, and we found training him a most interesting and frustrating experience. Fortunately we were directed to a very good trainer with experience with Welsh Terriers.

We struggled through many puppy obedience classes with Baxter always being one of the 'more active' dogs in the class. Finally we arrived at our AKC Canine Good Citizenship Test and the Saint John's Ambulance Pet Therapy Test. With great enthusiasm and lots of trepidation, we elected to take both tests at the same time. Given that the test lasted over 2 hours, Baxter "behaved" and passed. Afterwards we talked to our trainer regarding further training for Baxter. Though we had put in a great effort to train him, we were not totally comfortable with his performance. He was very willful (and still is to this day); therefore, the trainer suggested we try agility, flyball or maybe hospital pet therapy work. Baxter was interested in fun, and straight obedience work was not in his future.

Since it was mid winter and there was much snow on the ground, we elected to try hospital therapy work first, then agility training in the spring. We were posted to a downtown hospital not too far from our home. Also, we wanted to work with the staff rather than just visit patients. The hospital was very enthusiastic about this approach, and decided that Baxter and I would work with the recreational therapist on the fourth floor - the acquired brain injury ward.

The patients on this floor were recovering from severe head injuries and finding their way back to their own lives. The patients were either young men or women suffering from sports injuries such as motorcycle accidents, and the elderly, usually from car accidents. It was a tough floor to work because the patients' condition varied from severe to fully recovered. Unfortunately many would never return home fully recovered from their injuries.

Our role was to interact with each patient, say hello, introduce Baxter, maybe place Baxter up onto the bed, let the patient pet him, give him a cookie and say goodbye. The therapist would use the encounter to evaluate short and long term memory, dexterity and mobility of the patient; all of this in light of that many patients react more favourably to a dog. In return I would have a unique opportunity to train Baxter dealing with a variety of people. Baxter would receive lots of attention and the cookies (specially the cookies). Baxter also quickly learned to visit the lunch room on that floor as soon as possible to assure that the floor was always kept clean - by him of course.

Well, Baxter was an instant hit, and his notoriety spread throughout the hospital. We were not sure this was a great thing since he had already pulled out a patient's oxygen line that he found buried under the sheets. His fame, however, was secured at the annual Christmas party. He was sitting on my lap, with his leash wrapped around my wrist as we sang Christmas carols. Baxter decided to join in and barked along with the songs. This was pretty funny and we continued on with "Here comes Santa Claus". Of course this was a clue for Santa to run along the hall and enter at the far side of the lounge for gift giving. Baxter also saw Santa - something big, red and moving fast. He leapt from my lap, leash and all and disappeared into the gathering and ran out into the hall with me in hot pursuit.

Santa did not arrive in the room because Baxter had jumped up and firmly attached himself to Santa's beard. As I turned the corner, Santa was slowly descending to the floor in gales of laughter. The staff could not control themselves either from laughing and couldn't come to Santa's aid. I, of course, was totally humiliated. Well, I detached the "therapy" dog from Santa's beard and realized I was in need of therapy myself for ever considering pet therapy work with a Welsh.

However, Baxter did very good work the 2 and 1/2 years we were at the hospital and I should share with you some of Baxter's experiences. This one is a very personal moment in my life. I do not tell this story very often for fear that many want to make too much of it, and thereby lessen the purity of the event. It is also a story which many hospital therapy workers dream of telling, and this is the first time I have committed to print.

We were asked to visit a young woman who had just been transferred to the floor. She had physically recovered from her injuries but had been disassociated from the world at the time of her accident several months ago. The team wanted to try pet therapy since all other types of therapy were just not working. We were advised that it might be emotionally upsetting and were given the option not to visit this particular patient. Well, I thought this is the reason we are here, and with the patient's parents permission we began.

Our visits were structured exactly like a normal visit. We would walk into the room, announce ourselves and go over to her bed. We would pick Baxter up, and gently place him at her side. The therapist would pick up her hand and stroke Baxter's back with the patient's hand. I would place a cookie between the patient's fingers, and she would "give" Baxter a treat. We would talk to her about Baxter, and then would leave. Of course the patient just laid there still in her bed. We continued on for 8 weeks like this, and the therapist and I got our routine down pat.

The following week was our last before we went on summer vacation, and of course this patient would not be there in the fall. We did our rounds which included our typical visit with our special patient. Again we went through the routine and nothing happened. We said our good-byes and as we exited out the door, the young woman turned her head ever so slightly and said in a very small voice:

"Good Bye Baxter"

We almost didn't hear it but these were her first words in 5 months. We walked out of the room casually and continued on our rounds, but with a very small smile on our faces. It was a wonderful moment, and made even more special that we didn't say anything about it. It was a fine way to end that season at the hospital.

I do not know what happened to the young lady, though I think about her every so often. We did return in the fall but she was gone, and that fall was our last session at the hospital. I had become too busy with my work to visit the hospital during the day, and we had really begun to focus on dog agility. But that is a whole other story. However, I think that Baxter - a very difficult Welsh Terrier - made an excellent pet therapy dog, and the hospital gave us an open invitation to return at ant time, even for just a visit.

Bill Heartwell & Baxter
In Toronto, Canada