When Bingley and owner Denise Fitzgerald wake up in the morning, he climbs on top of her, places a paw on each side of her neck, and pushes his little flat face against hers. After that greeting, the day just gets better and better for the Templeton, Calif., pair — and everyone they encounter.
Bingley, a 12½-pound English Toy Spaniel (ETS), spends some of his weekends at all-breed conformation shows, including the recent Kennel Club of Beverly Hills event in Pomona, Calif. Much of the rest of the time he is a versatile therapy dog. His work has taken him to a wide range of sites, including firefighter base camps and Red Cross evacuation centers during the late 2017 Santa Barbara fires to medical facilities such as hospitals and day care centers for adults with mental and physical disabilities.
This month, he and Fitzgerald will return to the Special Olympics in San Luis Obispo, where he will provide support for the athletes, and this summer, the pair will participate in camps for middle school students. If that isn’t enough, he competed in his first agility trial in April. He already has an AKC Novice trick dog title.
Fitzgerald has owned English Toy Spaniels for 12 years. She was involved in a similar number of pursuits with her first ETS, Mr. Darcy, who led her to “fall in love” with the breed. Darcy’s death in January 2016 left a huge hole in Fitzgerald’s heart.
“Just days after Darcy passed,” Fitzgerald recalls, “I was sitting on the couch with tears rolling down my cheeks when I glanced at Facebook to see Bingley’s breeder, Heather Reid (in Orange, Texas), had posted about a new litter of four puppies. She seldom posts on Facebook, but her reputation and that of the sire of this litter were special. A good, well-bred ETS puppy is not easy to find, and I have known some people who waited five years to get a quality one.”
She reached out to Reid via private message the following morning. Several phone calls and correspondences followed and “things began to feel right about having a new puppy join our family,” adds Fitzgerald. “Some people might think this sounds crazy, but I believe Darcy was sending me signs to let me know it was OK.”
Once the decision was made, Reid invited Fitzgerald and her husband to fly to Texas to get Bingley. “Staying in their home for four days allowed me to meet their dogs, including Bingley’s sire and dam, and his littermates. It gave me time to ask questions and observe how they did things and provided me an instant comfort zone. I continue to turn to them any time I have questions — or if there is something I want to share with them. This is one of my favorite things about getting a puppy from a responsible breeder: lifetime support.”
With a strong bond established between the two couples, Reid offered Fitzgerald full registration, allowing her to show Bingley if she chose. Upon returning home, Fitzgerald wasted no time socializing the tiny newcomer. With permission, she began visiting local medical facilities when he was three months old, then enrolled the smart, spirited little guy in obedience and agility classes. She also taught him tricks at home, sometimes using videos on AKC.org.
“Tricks come in handy during therapy dog visits, but I use them to keep him challenged and busy while waiting for our turn in the Group ring.” Fitzgerald shares. “Thus, if you see us in Group, you’ll often spot Bingley giving me high-fives, kisses, or doing spins on cue. It’s all about keeping everything we do fun and enjoyable.”
Bingley blossomed and officially became a registered therapy dog in January 2017 via Alliance of Therapy Dogs. A variety of opportunities opened up, ranging from visiting the Cachuma firefighter base camp, Santa Barbara Sheriff Dispatch Center, and Red Cross Evacuation Center last December, to a wide range of California Central Coast medical facilities.
There is a stark contrast between the places they visit. “Visiting locations impacted by natural disasters means the team must be ready to go, willing to be in a stand-by mode and to cancel and reschedule within a minute’s notice,” Fitzgerald says. “Conversely, most visits to medical facilities and schools are scheduled and follow a pattern.”
At a hospital, get-togethers are generally in a calmer, more intimate setting than those in a disaster environment. Being a small dog, Bingley sits on laps and snuggles in beds with patients.
Recently, while taking a new team through a hospital, Bingley began expressing interest in an individual on the other side of a curtain, even though he could not see her. “When I peeked around the curtain to ask if she would like us to visit, her face lit up,” recalls Fitzgerald. “It was hard to understand her when she spoke, but it was clear Bingley’s visit made a positive impact. He wanted to be on her bed and she wanted him there. Some of our visits are a few minutes, but others, like this one, can last 30 minutes or longer.”
The firefighter base camps present a whole different experience. “I’m an outdoorsy person and am much more relaxed in those settings,” Fitzgerald explains. “Bingley picks up on this. There’s also a different connection for me with the first responders because they have been a part of my personal life in helping with my Mum in times of need.”
In nearly all of the varied types of visits, recipients often pull out photos of their own dogs. Firefighters are away from their families for extended periods of time and are missing their loved ones, too. “When we approach with a happy, wagging dog, it’s the next best thing to hugging and petting their own dog,” Fitzgerald says, smiling. “For the amount of time we are there, we are able to share and listen and bring some normalcy to an otherwise difficult and challenging time.”
Plucky, yet discerning, Bingley is also used as a neutral testing dog for Alliance of Therapy Dogs applicants. Part of the exam includes observing how the applicant dog reacts to an unknown neutral dog, because working therapy dogs often cross paths with each other. This task requires Bingley to remain non-reactive, no matter what the four-legged applicant does.
Fitzgerald sees Bingley’s unflappable manner in challenging therapy environments as a huge plus in the show ring. “His confidence and happy personality are as described in the breed standard (“merry and affectionate”). He is young and still developing physically, but in another two or three years, he’s going to be an amazing dog in the conformation ring. He moves well, so it is easy to showcase his gait.”
The conformation arena is new to Fitzgerald. “I have never shown a dog prior to Bingley,” she says, “so we are learning together. Practicing for, and exhibiting in, conformation complements therapy dog training. Shows are busy and loud, with a judge going over Bingley from nose to tail. What a perfect experience for exposure to therapy dog interaction.”
Currently, the lightning-quick Bingley loves the fun, flair, and carousel of physical challenges associated with agility. ”He has shown zero anxiety on the course,” says his dedicated owner. “He approaches a course with enthusiasm and speed.”
So, what’s the story behind his name? The Fitzgeralds’ daughter, Erika, was a senior in high school when Denise and her husband, Kevin, obtained their first ETS. “I have a hard time naming my pets,” she confesses. Erika, an avid reader, was in the midst of Jane Austen’s “Pride & Prejudice” when they purchased their first ETS puppy. She suggested “Mr. Darcy,” and the name stuck. Next came “Mr. Bennet,” followed by “Mr. Bingley.”
“I’ve used up all the male character names that I like, so I will need a new novel for my next ETS pup,” Fitzgerald teases.