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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Right on! TDI seems to be a "my way or the highway" type of group. There is no follow through on their part. My four month membership cost $35 - the same as a whole year! There was a delay of one month in receiving the paperwork after my dog passed the exam.