Performance Dogs Help Healing Process

by Wayne Bleazard, AKC Executive Field Rep

Nearly everyone knows how dogs help people who are blind, handicapped, hearing impaired or have other physical limitations. Needless to say, these dogs generally do not compete in performance events, as their function in life is not compatible with the different demands and needs for a dog in field trials and/or hunt tests.

However, there is an important role our competing canine companions can play when their handler needs help in recovering from an extended illness such as cancer, stroke, and other long-term illnesses.

Once the human patient has endured the hospital rigors with pokes, prods, tests, chemo, IV drips, machines, more tests, etc. he or she is finally released to go home to recover and build back strength and stamina through exercise. The beginning regimen for exercise is nearly always walking. Performance dogs are always willing partners to take their humans for a walk, whether it is simply down the driveway and back for a week or two, then slowly increasing distance to the end of the property, then down the street, eventually around the block, then picking up speed and more distance. It doesn't matter whether the dog is a champion or beginner, the dog is happy to be nearby.

The performance dog creates a common bond to and is the connecting thread of the healing process to the training partners who have been visitors in the hospitals, home, and have made numerous phone calls to check on the patient's well being. These partners show up with an "empty" kennel in the back of their truck and offer to take the patient and dog training. The partners, recognizing that the patient isn't quite back to 100% yet, ask him/her to sit at the "line" to direct the placement of the birds and set the tests up. The partners then trade places with one another on bird stations, but refuse to let the patient go out into the field as they know this will be too tiring; they allow the dog to run the training tests in a consolidated effort to help dog and trainer get back into condition for the up-coming trialing season.

The dogs give a reason to get up, get moving, and get back on our feet to be with these friends. While the training at first is not as rigorous as it was before the health setback, it is enough to get the dog in shape, and get the trainer moving towards recovery. More importantly, it gets the trainer/patient back to interacting with people who have common interests. After months of being alone and isolated while fighting the illness, the patient now has reason and means to get out amongst others. Most everyone who has been on this road to recovery credit the relationships with other dog people as a huge reason for their ability to beat the disease that has taken a huge toll in their life.

Participating once again in the field trials/hunt tests brings the patient another sense of worry, concern and fear of whether or not they can again compete. Now the extended trialing family of friends and competitors who have sent cards, emails, phone calls and get well wishes offer even further support. Just the fact the patient and dog are well enough to be out in the trial field makes an impact, and that trialing family closes in tightly, cheering, offering support and help, and sincere wishes of recovery and good luck.

Needless to say, any earned ribbon is now seen as a true triumph - whether it is a pass in the Junior, Senior or Master or a JAM in the Open, Amateur or Qualifying, that ribbon has a much deeper meaning. It is a symbol of victory and triumph by not just the handler and dog, but an entire community of caring and sharing. When it comes down to the bottom line that is what life is all about, and through the common bond we all have with dogs, that bottom line runs really deep.

Contributors to this article include the "chemo crew" Lanse Brown, Kathy Berdan, and Sam Kenny.

About the author: Wayne Bleazard is a cancer survivor, diagnosed with leukemia in 2003, and a relapse in 2007. His dog, AFC UFO completed her title in June of 2004, with support, help and love from training partners and competitors on the Mountain Time Zone circuit. They went on to qualify for two more nationals before UFO's retirement in June of 2007.