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Dibs gets his licks in with Alexis Burgess, 8, in early December several days following the shootings at Oxford (Michigan) High School. The Belgian Shepherd and owner/handler Linda Brady made several therapy visits with townspeople following the tragedy. Photo courtesy Alicen Burgess.

Linda Brady has been involved in dog training since 1978 but nothing quite prepared her for what she dealt with in early December.

A resident of Oxford, Michigan (population 3,586), she was alerted shortly after the shootings at the town high school on November 30.

“You always think something like this is never going to happen in your small town,” she says. But it did and she quickly dispatched e-mails to an individual she felt could organize some Therapy Dog respondents.

After coming up empty on that front, Brady connected with Michelle Palmer, who was seeking Therapy Dogs for a town gathering at Legacy 925, a 200,000-square foot state-of-the-art family fun park for everything from corporate parties to the ultimate kids’ attractions.

“Although Michelle is not a ‘dog person,’ she volunteered to do it as a favor to the center’s management,” Brady says. That’s when the real ‘dog person,’ stepped to the plate and reached out with a storm of passion to her many students and friends with Therapy Dogs. Many other clubs and/or organizations volunteered their services, too.

Oxford High School students pet Dibs, who is wearing an “Oxford Strong” shirt, after a shooting at their high school killed four classmates.

Three days after the shootings, these dogs were front and center for what promises to be a long healing process for all those impacted by the tragedy that took four lives and left seven others injured. The Legacy 925 environment was optimal for fun and games yet not suited for the quiet solitude and interaction needed by the grieving students with the Therapy Dogs.

“Puts Life in Perspective”

More accustomed to the highly competitive stages of Conformation, Agility, Obedience, and other AKC performance sports, Brady’s 4-year-old Belgian Sheepdog Dibs found himself suddenly thrust into a tender new one-on-one environment with grieving youngsters yearning to love, touch and talk to him.

“It is touching to see the kids’ faces light up when Dibs leans into them to be petted,” Brady observes. “He takes his job seriously and senses their needs and sorrow. He’s there not only for the kids, but the parents, too, who are going through a horrible emotional time.

“It’s hard not to cry when you see a big, strong 16-year-old-ish boy, sink his head into the fluffy fur of your dog’s neck and come up with tears he is trying to hide. There are no words anyone can say to help them heal, but it is amazing how the dogs do it was just that look in their eyes that say, ‘I am here for you’ and their big heart opens up.

Brady and Dibs take a photo break after earning Best of Winners and Best in Puppy Sweeps at the Belgian Sheepdog Club of America 2018 National Specialty at Purina Farms in Gray Summit, Missouri.

“Watching Dibs and the others bring smiles to these kids’ faces certainly puts life in perspective. Yes, he is a performance dog, but I saw a tender side of him here, too. That mushy marshmallow side.”

Brady’s emotions traversed all over the map. “I would be smiling one minute, happy and conversing with the kids and adults, then the next minute I would watch them and feel like my heart is breaking for them. Trying so hard not to cry knowing what they experienced. Something that will be a life-long memory. I will always remember those many faces smiling and others full of tears.”

Dibs had – and continues to have – plenty of Therapy Dog company, too — Goldens, Labs, Dachshunds, Samoyed, and more – coaxing smiles and tears out of the emotionally hurting students. Dibs and Brady have done eight visits and will continue as needed.

Summer days at the lake, just a boy and his bumper.

Breed Education

But seeing a Belgian Sheepdog in their midst was a bit unusual by virtue of their lack of popularity (117th of 195) on the AKC’s 2020 registration statistics and aloofness (more on that later).

Brady always seizes the moment to get in a little breed education with the public when introducing Dibs: “This is Dibs. He is a Therapy Dog today and on weekends he does Agility.”

Then she pops the big question: “Do you know what breed he is?”

Amidst puzzled looks and plenty of guessing, answers range from Shepherd cross, wolf cross, Collie cross. But never a Belgian Sheepdog.

Dibs makes people smile wherever he is, even in a tire-repair shop. How can you not love that face or want to have a heart-to-heart conversation with him?

Born to Comfort

Dibs has an on/off switch accented with stability and resilience. He is a workaholic when asked to be, says Brady, exhibiting a calm and lazy demeanor around the house but ready to go with “energy on demand.”

“He is easy to live with. I was lucky to have gotten him from a breeder who did a good job socializing him early with adults and children. He was exposed to plenty of noise and farm animals, too. Neither small nor large things were an issue for him,” she notes.

The longtime trainer/handler’s love affair with the sleek black Sheepdog is built around trust and his “love to learn and want to do things. Everything I do with him makes me smile. I am thrilled when he does well in agility and people with other breeds come up to tell me how much they love watching him.

“Belgian Sheepdogs have a bad rap about their aloofness, however. Aloof calls for ‘don’t care’ if you touch me or not, but a lot of BSDs are frightful of strangers. That is not aloof, that is fear!”

Olivia, Dibs’s best friend since she was 4 months old, engage in a weekly game of tug-of-war.

Dibs’ Therapy potential was apparent from age 12 weeks when Brady’s Mom was in a nearby nursing home and later an assisted-living facility. “I knew he was made for the job when he just laid at our feet as we sat and played games. Residents in wheelchairs and others using walkers, canes, and crutches didn’t faze him. If someone would stop and reach out their hand, he would calmly rise and lean on them for a pet, never trying to jump or get out of control. If they walked by and ignored him, he did the same.”

Life With Dibs

A big heart and plenty of emotional buoyance are the hallmarks of the sleek black, 59-pound dog’s personality. But add versatility to his résumé.

Dibs loves to swim, retrieve, jump in the water and never come out. While time and access are limited, Dock Diving would be one of his favorite endeavors.

But Team Dibs’ chief focus right now is Agility, namely preparing for the AKC 2022 Agility Invitational in December in Orlando, Florida. The qualifying period runs from July 1, 2021 to June 30. He is working on his MACH2 while attempting to stay in the breed’s top five for the Invitational; presently, he is No. 2.

Conformation was their first competitive endeavor and offered a fun appetite. “He loves it,” smiles Brady. “Stand still, look pretty, eat cookies and when the judge is not looking, play with a ball! How fun is that?” He finished his championship at 18 months with limited showing, but would have finished it much sooner, as majors in Belgians are hard to find.” He is heading back to the breed ring this year in quest of a Grand Championship.

The agility competitor charges into the tunnel fast but emerges even faster at an event in Lapeer, Michigan. Photo courtesy Cathi Winkles Photography.

His Obedience is “coming along, and he loves it.” He started with Rally and in time will get his advanced Obedience titles, adds Brady. Adding more Advanced Scent Work titles is also in his future.

She concludes, “My training philosophy is break it down to the smallest parts, train the parts, and put it all together. Go slow and easy-motivate, having fun in the process. If you’re not having fun, the dog isn’t having fun. Work your dog to the best of your ability and your dog’s potential!

“Reach for the moon. If you miss, the worst that will happen is you will reach a star!”

Related article: Therapy Dog Teddy Awarded for Extraordinary Sense of Empathy
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