Monday, October 27, 2008

Why I'm Frustrated With TDI

I am well aware that this post might sound whiny, but in truth, this isn't just about my dog. This is disillusionment with a service organization which is supposed to be helping people.

I got a letter from TDI Saturday night, informing me that they have rejected Shakespeare as a therapy dog. My collected frustrations with TDI have been building for a while; this was just the trigger to actually post them publicly.

Shakespeare had tested with TDI years before and passed. He passed this last test in July with flying colors as well. However, the organization asked for more information because I had checked a box that yes, my dog has been in a dog fight. So I sent a letter explaining that once I was attacked by a German Shepherd (a recent rescue, found wandering and dragging a chain after a tornado -- bad breeding, no socialization, no training, no chance at being a decent dog, and traumatized), and Shakespeare had come to my defense. Shakespeare showed no aggression toward the Shepherd before the dog came at me and another dog (probably targeting the other dog), and he ignored the Shepherd again afterward. I myself considered the action appropriate for a breed made specifically to guard and protect the handler, and I appreciated the fact that he ignored the offending dog when there was no threat.

I explained in the letter that Shakespeare has never started a fight, that Shakespeare has been the usual neutral dog for countless CGC tests, temperament tests, training sessions for reactive dogs, etc. Shakespeare has logged visits and greetings with literally thousands of schoolchildren. I provided a half-dozen professional references, in case they didn't want to take just my word for it.

But their letter said that they could not accept Shakespeare as a therapy dog. It seems that they did not speak with even one of the references I provided. Despite the fact that Shakespeare served as the neutral dog for TDI evaluations, they stated he could be a risk "if he were to encounter another dog while on a visit."

Even the most cursory glance at his resume should have indicated that Shakespeare "encounters other dogs" regularly. Why was I asked for additional information if it were not to be used in the review process?

When I told a friend that he'd been rejected, my friend just started laughing. It had to be a joke. After all, we've already had a number of visit requests this fall, but we hadn't gotten Shakespeare's paperwork back.

I do applaud their taking the time to review the situation; therapy dogs should be carefully evaluated. But I am frustrated that this decision was made apparently fairly arbitrarily, without consulting anyone who actually knows the dog in question or my handling. I did include references for their use, after all.

But this is just the icing on the cake, so to speak. While we're on the topic of arbitrary and frustrating, I am feeling pretty disillusioned for a number of additional reasons.
  • Communication (1) It has been more than three months, and I have still never heard anything regarding Laev. Are they planning to reject her, too? Have they accepted her? When should I expect to hear anything on this topic?

  • Communication (2) I have yet to see any email to TDI answered. Yes, I am emailing directly through their website.

    The last time I wrote was several weeks ago, after a client found that her evaluator had interpreted two test points differently than we had in practice. I wrote a polite inquiry asking for clarification, so that we could be sure we were giving correct information to those who wanted to volunteer for the organization. No answer of any sort.

    Our local TDI organizer also complains of intermittent communication. She was told by the office that TDI is comprised primarily of volunteers and we shouldn't expect better.

    Excuse me, there are LOTS of organizations comprised entirely of volunteers! I myself AM a volunteer for some of them. I try to answer email within 24 hours as much as possible, even for work for which I'm not being paid. Failing to respond entirely is just rude to the volunteer handlers.

  • Inconsistent Evaluations. I have observed several TDI evaluations. At one, the TDI evaluator passed several dogs which were displaying clear discomfort or even fear-aggression (piloerection, backing away, defensive barking, even a muzzle punch at the wheelchair). Two of the dogs I was reasonably sure were bite risks; one of the handlers even said as much about her dog. (I have no idea why anyone would bring such a dog for therapy evaluation...!) I was amazed that the evaluator passed them all.

    I spoke afterward with several other observers, all of whom had separately noted the same issues. Two of them took it upon themselves to write to TDI with their concerns; a risky dog benefits no one and in fact puts all therapy teams at risk. Their letters were very carefully worded, politely suggesting that these passing teams should perhaps be further evaluated and, perhaps, more education provided for the evaluator.

    Neither of those letters ever received any acknowledgment or response from TDI. (Again, communication!) Those dubious dogs are currently registered with TDI and handlers have publicly posted their scheduled visits. I consider this amazingly irresponsible; a bite from one of these dogs would affect not only the victim, but many other therapy teams and all those patients, residents, or participants who would subsequently be denied access to therapy visits.

  • Unreasonable Self-Importance. Some local TDI teams rented a booth (at their cost) at a local festival to spread the word, seeking to attract additional volunteers for TDI and also to promote TDI's services and get therapy teams in more places. These people spent their own money and stood for hours in cold and wet to promote the organization.

    The organizer asked TDI for signage; we had used donated signs at a previous event but we were told that official TDI banners needed to be used instead.

    The organizer was told that she would be sent a banner, but it was for single use only, she was completely responsible for its condition, and she had to ship it back when the festival was over. She had to fax back a contract stating that she was responsible for the banner before they would ship it. This was obviously a big deal to the TDI office and represented a substantial investment; she was very excited about the great banner which would come, giving a real professional air to the festival booth!

    The banner arrived. It was paper. About 11" tall. Just letters on paper, not even a logo. No grommets for hanging; there was no way to display the banner without using tape and thereby risking damage. There was no way to display it outdoors, especially in the damp, without risking damage. And it did not really lend a professional appearance to the booth. The banner looked so sad, in fact, that she was embarrassed to be using it instead of what a local print shop had donated previously. Fortunately, the print shop contact had a good sense of humor about it.

    What possible justification, I wonder, is there for the TDI office to be so obnoxiously insistent about this, to the point of requiring a faxed contract? Do they really have to hold volunteers contractually responsible for the condition and shipping of a cheap paper roll?
This is all very frustrating. On one hand, I feel strongly that good therapy teams can do a great deal of real good, and that there needs to be an evaluating body to make sure that there is a quality control standard for those therapy teams. I do talk about the documented health benefits of therapy animals and I do want to participate locally with my own trained dogs.

On the other hand, I am indignant at the shoddy treatment our local volunteers receive, with inconsistent information, intermittent communication, and high-handed treatment. I feel guilty when I hesitate to encourage someone to try therapy work, but sometimes I do hesitate when interested clients ask, because I don't feel I'm referring them to a truly organized body.

I have heard better reports of Delta Society, though I have not worked with them firsthand. Unfortunately, I won't be able to work with them; their rules automatically preclude any dogs with Schutzhund experience. This is quite silly, in my opinion; it's equivalent to saying that because I have trained in martial arts, I cannot be trusted to volunteer safely at a library's literacy program. But those are their rules, so we can't even try.

I am just so frustrated and disillusioned. I thought this would be a good program, and it should be one.

And it's not really about Shakespeare. That's disappointing, sure, but really it's not worth getting angry about. I have been (strongly) advised to cut back on my severe overbooking and I don't really have time for frequent therapy visits, anyway. I do understand the need for high standards for therapy dogs -- of course!! -- and I can see that they should be concerned about a dog who reacted strongly to another dog's aggression.

But I feel punished for honesty; if I'd interpreted the question as, "Has your dog ever started a dog fight?" and checked No, we'd be approved. Heck, Laev and I were rushed by a (completely different) German Shepherd while training for the AD. I fortunately had repellent spray with me and blasted him in the face. He followed us for another quarter mile, keeping a wary distance while I offered constant verbal threats. As I understand the TDI review board's decision, if I hadn't had the spray with me, Laev might also be ineligible for therapy work, having been involved in a fight.

(Frankly, if I had a choice between a Doberman who let his person be endangered and was accepted for therapy work, or a Doberman who defended his person and was rejected, I'd prefer to have the real, correct Doberman who defended his human. A Dobe who doesn't protect his person isn't a Doberman!)

But for the sake of the other volunteers and for those who could benefit from more therapy teams, I wish TDI were more organized and more respectful of those who do want to help. There's no reason that they couldn't be a really excellent resource for animal-assisted therapy work.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

I'm behind in posting

I have two weeks worth of news and updates. Some are good, some are less so. :-/ But I also have a weekend of KPA assessments to write up, which should obviously take priority, and then I'll try to move on to Laev's stuff.

In the meantime, though, here's a fun image. Last night during obedience, Laev tugged hard enough to rip our toy into two pieces. It wasn't the sturdiest of our toys, but it wasn't a cheap box store tug, either. (I think she's obviously back to playing wholeheartedly with me after her few months of inhibition due to pain.)

Her obedience last night was alternately distracted and brilliant. Her protection work was extremely sub-par. But, that needs to be another post, so I can get work done...!

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Proud of My Dog.

It's not always about stuff going wrong or funny stories. Today's post is just about me being happy that my dog is working well in most things.

Laev's protection work is coming along very well; I am really pleased with it. Her outs off a live helper are fast and clean and ultra-reliable. Her hold and bark is lovely. She's backing very prettily into heel position when I call her out of the blind, though we need more work on staying at heel when I then call the helper out of the blind. Not her fault; we just haven't worked on it.

This past week the lightbulb came on for her that the side transport is REALLY just right-side heeling with the helper. I don't use the cue "heel" with this exercise because some judges will fault the dog looking at me during the transport.

This week I transported the helper to a "judge" during practice and then cued Laev to heel away. She is used to getting a bite on the helper during a side transport, to reward proper position and attention, and she told me quite clearly that I was stupidly forgetting something! We heeled away a few steps and then I sent her to the helper for a bite.

OH, Laev said. Why didn't you say so?

Our next repetition, she heeled away readily with me, practically dancing. She knew what was coming if she stuck with me. She's quick, she is.

Also this week she started putting together the send-away and distant down. I have been backchaining that, teaching first a distant face-me-and-lie-down cue and separately a send to a target, and then only recently combining them. This week for the first time I interrupted her run to the target with the distant face-me-and-down cue (at a shorter distance of only 25' or so) and she did it correctly twice out of two attempts. I'll take that. Now we just need more distance.

Her retrieves are almost exactly where I want them. I want a bit more speed on the flat retrieve, but her jumps are looking good. The retrieve over the wall is stressful for me! because I can't see her working, but she's doing it well.

She's still on the long line, though. I don't trust her entirely free. She's left me twice on that field to search for raccoons and squirrels, and she's not getting a chance to play at that again, not for a long, long time.

I do need to start chaining the full obedience routine together. She's got all the pieces; we just need it all at once!

Her tracking is improving, but I need to do a lot more of it. I don't like tracking; I can't practice bits of it in my kitchen. ;-) I need to get out to more fields, but I just don't do it often enough.

The only bad news is that my club's trial date was moved back. Now we're trialing mid-December. While that gives us more time to polish tracking, it means nasty cold weather, the kind that makes slick-coated Dobermans very uncomfortable on long obedience downs. I've threatened to dig out the honor down spot on the field and bury a radiant heating pad; I wonder if the judge will notice if there's no snow there?!

Anyway, I can't slack off, but I am not panicking, either. I hope I don't have to eat those words later!