Joanne Stacher, Golden Retriever Club of Greater Los Angeles
We were visiting an elementary school for the finale of our six weeks program. We hand out awards to all the children for having participated, and they really enjoy “Graduation Day.” On this one of many Graduation Days, a gas line broke in the school. Loud sirens went off throughout the classrooms and the children had to be evacuated, class by class expediently. To the incredible efficiency of the elementary school teachers in Kings Beach, Ca (North Lake Tahoe), the kids walked down to the Kings Beach Community Center grade by grade with their teachers and their aids, and we followed them. Once order was restored, we resumed our Graduation Day with all the classes who had participated that year, and took great pictures of each child with their colorful Canine Ambassador certificates. The program took the edge off the imminent danger the school children had experienced, but it was a different environment than the dogs were used to- 300 children in one big room, each class seated on the floor in a semi-circle and a lot of animated children. Had the dogs been novices or the handlers inexperienced, this would not have been successful. Had there been an accident with the children crowding or falling on the dogs, or the dogs getting scared and the handler losing control, who would cover it?
On another occasion, a third grade classroom was moved to a different wing of the school in Tahoe City and the alternate classroom had not been used for some time. The day we were visiting a rat ran across the pillow where the children were seated and a lot of screaming and running ensued. The teacher quickly took control and the dog/handler team remained in place waiting to resume our lesson. Had the dog attempted to chase the animal, and the handler lose control, the outcome might have been very different.
And finally, in the therapy dog world we evaluate the animals not just for obedience and temperament, but for their ability to work with different populations: general school classrooms are different that special education classes, senior residential groups are different than locked Alzheimer’s wards, hospital rehab units are different than the mental health units, etc. 4-H groups that specialize in farm animals may want to have a Canine Ambassador Program, but can the dogs handle rabbits, goats, horses and other hooved animals? Never assume that all your teams can handle these kinds of situations whether it is a border collie with high prey drive but advanced obedience titles or a cocker spaniel unaccustomed to crowds but used to children and grandchildren in the home. Make sure your teams are prepared, and insurance is in place.