Last week, Emmett worked as a therapy dog at a city-sponsored expo on volunteering, a children’s program at a residential hospital, and as a reading partner at the public library. By the time we got to the library on Saturday, he was wiped out and spend his “shift” dozing with his head in the kids’ laps.
He did a phenomenal job at each event, though, and I am constantly amazed and proud of his behavior. When we arrived at the hospital, we sat in the lobby while we waited to be let into the rec room with the kids. A woman sat eating a snack and watching Oprah on the small hospital TV. She kept glancing over at me and Emmett as I ran through some attentiveness drills with him. The receptionist paged the counselors we were meeting, “The therapy dog is here.”
The woman looked over and smiled. “Oh, so he’s a therapy dog!” she exclaimed.
“He sure is,” I said. “This is Emmett.”
“He’s very sweet,” she said as he wagged his tail with his big soft eyes. “But does he know he’s a therapy dog?”
I paused. No one ever asked me that before, and I’ve been asked just about every other Emmett-related question under the sun. “Honestly,” I said, “I think he just thinks that I take him places to get patted.”
Later, I thought about the question a little bit more: What Emmett thinks of his therapy work? Sometimes, especially with kids, he’s super energetic and wants to run from child to child to get hugs and scratches. But other times, like at the hospital last week, he responds to a situation in a way that I could never train. A young girl sat in the hallway crying. She was speaking with a counselor, but she was clearly very upset. The counselor called over to us, “Can we say hi to your dog?”
I walked Emmett over, thinking he’d rush up, tail wagging, and smoosh himself into the people like he so often does. Instead, Emmett walked slowly up to the girl, gave her a very small sniff, then he laid down right in front of her, head on her knees. The girl smiled and gushed, and her tears dried up as she rubbed Emmett. He gazed at her so calmly and thumped his tail lightly against the floor. My heart swelled with pride.
I could never teach Emmett to behave like that, especially in such specific situations. But somehow he always tones down his exuberance in the appropriate environments or patients. But what about those situations tips him off?
What do you think? Do dogs in general (or therapy dogs, specifically) know how to react in specific situations? How do they know?