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taking it on the road

by Kyler Laird last modified 2009-02-16 19:25

I've been thinking about a "traveling sideshow" a lot lately.

date: 2009-02-16 (4603 days ago)

Years ago when we had four dogs I decided that traveling by car was just too limiting so I bought a plane. That pack traveled all over the country with us and we met some wonderful people who we wouldn't have gotten to know if we hadn't had the dogs with us. As that pack aged and experienced illness we stopped traveling. Now we have healthy dogs but they won't easily fit in our plane anymore and they're just not as well-behaved as the original pack who could maintain a very low-profile in upscale hotels, etc. I've been thinking about other possibilities.

There's so much information that I want to share with people, especially children, about dogs and rescue dogs in particular. Our local programs and information on the Web provide a good start but I want to reach more people and give them hands-on experience with the dogs. And I'm always looking for ways that the dogs can perform works of value in order to help the rescue sustain itself and even provide funding for other rescues. I've been mulling over the thought of a traveling show for a long time and I decided it's time to write some of those thoughts. I'm going to do it in the form of a "use case." The following blog is fiction I want to make real.

Thursday afternoon I've verified that all of our equipment is secured in the semi. Kitty has packed supplies for us and the dogs. The upstairs kennel is clean and fresh cushions and toys are in place to make the trip more enjoyable for the dogs who will ride there. The dogs at the boarding kennel and at home have all been bathed and groomed. The rescue in Springfield who is organizing the events this weekend just sent the last of the confirmations and we're all on track.

Thursday evening We loaded the last of our supplies into the trailer and we're in the truck with our house dogs. Kitty and I just had dinner and I'm driving to the kennel to get the dogs there. We'll let everyone play in the yard for a bit while we handle last-minute brushing of a few of the dogs. The dogs seem to have had enough play so I start sending the kennel dogs into the trailer. They make their way upstairs where Kitty directs them to their pens. Our house dogs jump into the truck and with everyone secured, we head to Springfield.

Thursday night Kitty took over driving as we hit the open road and I switched to computer work for awhile. The dogs in the truck are settled and the cameras in the trailer show that the dogs there are enjoying the quiet change in pace from the boarding kennel. I'm just finishing my work as we pull off the Interstate. Kitty and I switch places again and she vectors me to our base for the weekend. The Springfield rescue sent us a map of the grounds and we find our spot at the edge of a parking lot along a playing field. The dogs are excited to be stopped but I leave them in the truck and look for the water and electricity marked on the map. It will be nice to avoid using the generator most of the time and we'll have plenty of water to bathe dogs without depleting the tanks.

While I checked on utilities Kitty started loading the fence panels onto the liftgate. The first batch is coming down now and I'm hurrying to get the fence in place to satisfy the excited dogs I hear inside. Kitty starts moving the dogs from the truck back to the fenced area as I complete it and then we release the dogs in the trailer. They're all excited to be outside and in a new environment but we try to keep them quiet so that we don't disturb anyone in the neighborhood.

It's a comfortable night so we sit outside with the dogs and watch a movie before bedtime. Everyone heads inside and settles fairly quickly. There's an occasional noise that sets the kenneled dogs off and they trigger the dogs in the sleeping area but we eventually get some much-needed rest.

Friday morning The dogs notify us of school buses arriving and we can see on the outside cameras that the trailer has not gone unnoticed by the children. With the dogs wide awake it's time to get them outside. The dogs are excited to see the formerly desolate neighborhood alive with people and vehicles. Occasionally someone stops to ask about "Therapy Dog Rescue" and we chat a little bit and explain about the dogs and their work here. After the kids disappear into the school we feed the dogs and relax for a bit. We all try to maintain our routine so Kitty exercises while we watch the news and I catch up on work stuff over breakfast. With everyone fed I release the dogs outside again and then it's time to get ready for our busy schedule.

Kitty and I grab a couple dogs and head to the school. We sign in and then briefly meet with the principal to thank her for participating in our program and to go over a few details. Our next stop is a special needs classroom. They've never had dogs in their room so it's a new experience for both teachers and students. It's a challenge to handle the dogs in a new environment but these two are solid and make it easy. A couple of the students are fearful but they come around as they see their classmates enjoying the dogs. Time passes quickly and we're soon escorting the class to their next activity. We're spotted in the hallways by other classes and we try not to be too distracting. The students do know about the dogs already and they've all had exercises to prepare them for meeting the dogs. My favorite exercise they'll all do involves picking up a bite-sized "Therapy Dog Rescue" candy bar using a bag-covered hand.

The dogs have done a great job and we return with them to the trailer for the rest of the morning. I have more work to do and Kitty checks in with the Springfield rescue who is hosting us. The dogs are settling in to their new environment and have already figured out that sometimes a bell signals lots of kids running out of the school.

Friday afternoon After eating lunch we haul equipment into the school gymnasium for the convocation. Barriers, stage, agility equipment, sound gear, video projector and screen, mats, water bowls, ... it takes several trips to the trailer but the dogs help us by hauling it all in the big wagon. We're also assisted by a couple volunteers provided by the local rescue. The gym is unused before our presentation so we bring all the dogs there to acclimate to the room. We're having fun playing together as the students begin to arrive. I quickly shift gears and take the dogs outside one last time before we begin.

We start our presentation with an introduction to what we do and a little background on dog rescue. I use a video clip of a shelter full of dogs to impress upon the students how many unwanted dogs there are. As I talk I often ask questions of the students and I see that most of them have dogs of their own. I introduce each of our dogs and briefly give their background stories. The students all have fliers with photos and basic info for each of the dogs so it's easy for them to keep up as I zip through the 15 dogs we've brought today.

As I introduced the dogs I spoke a little bit about basic care, especially the grooming required for our "low shed" dogs. I talk a little more about care including health checks, neutering and parasite preventives, but also about the need for dogs to have exercise and a family. I know some of these kids think only in terms of a dog being chained in the back yard. I'm hoping they'll leave here with another image of that relationship.

In talking about exercise I demonstrate some of my guys doing agility routines and pulling the wagon and a scooter. It's fun to see the kids' expressions when they see these "family dogs" doing real work.

Now that the students are comfortable with the dogs I talk about how to safely greet a new dog. I enlist the help of a couple favorite teachers to demonstrate how not to greet a dog and Marley excitedly jumps on one of them to the great pleasure of the students. On the other hand, Grazie growls and backs away as a tall male teacher stoops to offer his hand to her. That quiets the room and I can sense some hesitation. I talk about bite statistics and ask how many people there have been bitten. I see a lot of hands - way too many.

Now I invite some preselected students to come meet the dogs. We have a very diverse collection of students approach the stage and they all do well at following the "stand like a tree" instructions as I send some dogs out to approach them. It's quiet in the room as the dogs sniff and circle, eventually settling or wandering away. I secure the dogs then thank the students and release them to return to their seats - except one boy I know has had some behavior problems. I ask him to stay and help me demonstrate greeting Grazie again. I give him a few instructions and he sits facing the other students while I release Grazie. While she slowly checks out this boy I talk some more about the dangers of intimidating frightened dogs. Soon Grazie is nuzzling the boy in expectation of a treat. I hand him one and Grazie sits for it. Now they're buddies and she's offering behaviors to him. I'm hoping the demonstration has made a good impression.

I've left plenty of time for questions and the students have a bunch. Some are predictable and others are a complete surprise. I try to incorporate a physical activity with various dogs in responding to them. I want the students to understand that these dogs are not simple robots trained to perform a set routine; they work with me because that's the relationship we have. Kitty and I leash a couple of the dogs and stand by the exit as the students leave so that everyone has a chance to get close to the dogs. We're all exhausted by the end of the presentation but it's been very rewarding.

It's time to tear down and we're especially thankful for the volunteers helping us now. As we haul out gear we chat about things they might do to work with the schools more closely and continue to educate students about dogs. Back at the trailer, Kitty is preparing for our next activity: harness measurements.

Soon after the buses have left cars with dogs begin to trickle into the lot. There are lots of Huskies but there's a wide range of other dogs too. We get to know the dogs and their owners as we drape nylon straps on the dogs and tack the straps in place. As each strap is removed, Kitty tags it and files it into the proper stack. Thirty dogs visit us for harness measurement this afternoon. I look forward to seeing them in the classes tomorrow.

Friday evening The dogs are still recovering from the presentation and the excitement of all of the new dogs visiting. We kennel them and then Kitty stays while a local volunteer and I take a couple dogs to a retirement home. It's fun to meet the residents there and I'm happy to see that the newspaper has sent someone to cover the visit. Perhaps someone in the community will want to continue this?

By the time we return to the trailer local rescue groups have already begun to gather. Kitty is organizing the food while I set up the projector under the awning on the side of the trailer. I play a short video to introduce our organization and some ideas for how to handle dogs and how to become more involved with the community. Over dinner we all enjoy great dog rescue-related conversation. We spend some of the time sewing the harnesses for our class tomorrow morning and we talk about how rescues can take advantage of putting rescue dogs to work. I give a brief scootering demo and lay a track that we'll use tomorrow by letting volunteers ride the scooters while I run with the dogs. By the time everyone leaves and the dogs are fed and relieved, it's time for all of us to get to bed.

Saturday morning We're now in the routine of life on the road but it still takes a lot of effort. After breakfast and showers we roll right into our first pulling class. 15 dogs and their owners have come to learn how they can work/play together. After a brief introduction we take turns helping each team get harnessed and pull a juice jug on a long line. This is a well-managed introduction with lots of baiting and it goes well for all of the dogs. It takes awhile to cycle through so many teams but it's good for the dogs to relax between exercises and for the people to watch other teams. Next we hitch each dog to a light plastic sled and repeat the exercise - lots of baiting.

By now we have a good impression of the dogs and people involved. It's time to switch gears a bit. The dogs all go on picket lines and we get our favorite pulling dogs and scooters. Each person gets a turn riding behind a strong dog. The dogs know the routine and can easily follow the path we laid last night. It's a good way to give participants a taste of what they'll achieve with their own dogs someday and it simplifies the learning process by eliminating the need to control the dog so much. When everyone is done the demo dogs go back inside and we return to our participant teams. One by one, we hitch each dog to a very long and light bungee cord to begin pulling a scooter. While the owners ride, I manage the line and a volunteer baits the dogs. We keep the ride short and easy and everyone gets a good taste of what's to come. Afterward we bring out some more dogs and various carts and wagons for a demonstration. It's been a good session and I can see people thinking about the fun they'll have as they head to their cars.

We tend the dogs and eat lunch while sewing the batch of harnesses for the next class. It's nice to have a little downtime and enjoy the weather.

Saturday afternoon A new pulling class gathers and we run through the same routine as we did with our morning class. This time we're recorded by a local TV station. I love the publicity and hope it will inspire others.

Saturday evening We are once again fed by the local rescue and we gather to discuss possibilities. We also go over the financial situation for the weekend. From the fees they collected for the pulling classes and a grant they got for the school presentation they'll make more this weekend than they usually make from a year of bake sales and car washes, even after paying us. They also report that they've gotten several calls from people who are interested in making donations and working with them, including a couple of students.  They've also covered our fees, providing us enough to continue our work.

Sunday morning and afternoon It's nearly a repeat of Saturday but this time we push the dogs in the pulling classes a bit more. They're run in teams with our dogs so that they really get to stretch their legs. We keep the distance short but they're starting to get the message: "Run!" It's a joy to watch the dogs do what they want to do after spending a lifetime being forced to heel.

Sunday evening We're done here! We tear down camp, load dogs and head home. We're all tired but it's been a rewarding weekend. The kennel dogs are ready for a "boring" week of playgroups and the house dogs are ready to just curl up in their corners and sleep for awhile. I enjoy getting reports on how our visit has affected those in the community. I like to think there are many stories I'll never hear; like the ones of children who recalled something I said/showed and avoided being bitten by a dog. It was all worthwhile.

more possibilities...

  • "read to a dog" demo at school or library
  • clicker training intro for children

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