Friday, October 19, 2007

I Love Dogs, and this Story Melts Your Heart

My friend's daughter has a chocolate lab that has a unique mission in life. Here is her dog's story.

The Dog With Two Last Names

Written by Star Johnson

The hot dog, clutched in the hand of a small boy, hovered mere inches from the nose of an 80-pound Chocolate English Lab. In the ordinary world, the hot dog would be history. But when the boy in question is a 2007 Wags-for-Wishes Make-A-Wish child and the Lab is Barker the Therapy Dog, the hot dog is completely safe.

Barker's mom, Sherry Buchbinder, is justifiably proud of her six-year-old Lab's amazing self-discipline. After all, that self-discipline earned Barker the therapy dog equivalent of a Doggie Doctorate in just one year. "Barker is my first Therapy Dog," says Sherry about their success, "I had no idea what to do. It's just him."

But how does such a young Lab (a breed infamous for lengthy puppyhoods) become so responsible so quickly?

Barker's life didn't start out smoothly. "Products" of an unsavory puppymill, Barker and his sister had little defense against the filthy surroundings and complete lack of care. By the time they were rescued by Animal Control Officers, the 10-week-old puppies were deathly ill. Rushed to a veterinary clinic where Sherry's sister-in-law Kim worked, the pups were grimly diagnosed with advanced Parvo. It was hoped the little female would pull through (she did). Barker, however, was not expected to survive.

Resisting the recommendation to "put him down," Kim crusaded to keep the little male alive. Her determination paid off. With a healthy four-month-old puppy in her arms, Kim called Sherry and said, "I've got your dog!" Sherry wasn't looking for a puppy -- she had two dogs of her own, plus two others from a sister staying with her. But Kim insisted the puppy was meant to be hers. And, indeed, it was love at first sight.

Which brings us to how Barker got his name. "I know something about barking!" says one of Barker's fans, a woman owned by a Sheltie (a breed infamous for their barking), "But I've never heard Barker bark." Come to find out Barker isn't named after a behavior, he's named after a person -- Sherry's hero, dear friend and adopted dad, Lynn Barker. "I had fallen in love with the puppy, but was hesitant about bringing him into a home with four other dogs" explains Sherry. "Lynn, who lives right next door, used to raise chocolate labs. He had recently lost his beloved friend Sammi a14-year-old cockapoo. I knew he'd love the puppy, so I asked if he wanted to keep him. It was okay because I knew I'd get to play with him every day." But Lynn did something unexpected, muses Sherry. "He said 'No, he's your dog'." Named in Lynn's honor, Barker Buchbinder is the dog with two last names!

For the first two years of life with Sherry, her husband Rhein, and the other four dogs, Barker was a typical Lab puppy – bouncing around and into everything. That began to change when Sherry underwent knee surgery. "Coming home from the hospital, I worried that Barker was going to bounce around like his usual self and come down on my knee," recalls Sherry. Instead, Barker sat quietly by Sherry's side. "I couldn't believe it," she says. "He just did it on his own."

When Barker turned three, two events occurred that showcased Barker's true potential. First, Sherry underwent two more knee surgeries. And second, Dozer, the family's alpha dog, died. "Barker just stepped up to the plate." Sherry explains. "I was in a wheelchair at first and, eventually, I needed a cane. It was difficult for me to get around. So Barker would get the newspaper and bring in the mail for me." Barker also brought Sherry her various medications. "I painted the bottle caps different colors, so Barker could get the one I needed." Barker became Sherry's indispensable Service Dog.

Barker was five years old when Sherry signed him up for his AKC Canine Good Citizen Certification test. He passed with flying colors. "When the testers, who were from the Hidden Valley Obedience Club, saw how well Barker and I worked together, they kept saying 'We can't believe he's not a therapy dog'," says Sherry. "I didn't know anything about Therapy Dogs, so I asked them a ton of questions. They were so enthusiastic that they inspired me to do what we do."For work, Barker is showered, his teeth are brushed ("That's when he knows we're going to work!"), and his paws are disinfected with gel both at home and again just prior to going into the job site. Barker doesn't mind the several-weekly baths – he thoroughly despises being dirty. "We call him our white collar dog" says dad, Rhein. Returning home from an outing in the great out-of-doors, Barker ran to the shower and jumped in. "It was like he was saying 'Get it off! Get the dirt off!'" Sherry laughs.

Therapy work can be exhausting, for both dog and handler. Sherry and Barker were asked to visit a young ICU patient who had bonded with Barker during earlier visits. "We didn't know it," says Sherry quietly, "but they were going to pull her plug while Barker and I were there. I was totally unprepared. It was really hard for both of us." Barker is a volunteer at Kaiser Permanente hospital in Riverside, California and visit's patients at other area hospital's. He also visits convalescent facilities, senior apartment complexes and works with the Make A Wish Foundation. "If Barker works two days in a row, he just crashes the third day. But if a few days go by and he hasn't gone to work, he'll nudge his vest, make little vocalizations, and stare at me with those big brown eyes."

Training to be a Therapy Dog encompasses lots of touching (paws, ears, tails, etc.), and obedience behaviors (long sit stays, comes, etc.). Dogs are observed in the car, in a variety of public venues (stores, malls, hospitals, etc.), and are subjected to many loud distractions (falling metal chairs, crash carts, confrontations, etc.). Trainers are looking for anything that might cause a dog to react inappropriately.

Like a waved-in-your-face hot dog, for example. Or the time a little girl used Barker's wagging tail as a jump rope. Or the time a small child gripped onto Barker's, ahem, nether-regions. "Training can't possibly prepare you for everything," Sherry admits. "But Barker just takes everything in stride."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My little pup visits people in nursing homes through a program we have in Massachusetts. He's very popular! Barker is a cutie.