Gatsby Officially Earns Title of Therapy Dog

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It has finally come to pass. Gatsby, our rescue Cavapoo pup, has been certified by the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. He can legitimately wear his therapy dog vest and volunteer in classrooms, nursing homes and other public places.

The entire training process took a little more than a year. When we adopted Gatsby from Texas Star Rescue here in Longview, he had spent the first nine months of his life as a puppy mill dog, locked up in a crate for almost his life. He was afraid of everything, spent hours hiding in corners and under couches. Our hearts nearly broke watching him trying to figure out how to run in our backyard. Mollie the Maltese took charge, running circles around Gatsby until he figured it out. Now they fly around the backyard chasing each other, leaping over the Mexican jasmine that appears to have not survived the winter freezes.

We were blessed with a superb dog trainer in Jamie Fenton Stearns, who has become legendary around here for her patience and ability to bring out the best in any dog. But even Jamie, when Gatsby first started obedience lessons in early January 2023, was skeptical he could ever become a therapy dog. He refused to walk on a leash, hid under my stool in the training room, and just cowered. But by the time we finished the first six weeks of lessons, Gatsby had considerably emerged from his shell.

Nearly every Friday afternoon for the past 13 months, I loaded Gatsby in the truck. He tends to get carsick, so prefers curling up on the floorboard instead of looking out the window as most dogs do. Mollie dearly loves sticking her snout out the window, letting the breeze blow her fur back. Not Gatsby.

But when we pull into the parking lot of PetSmart, and I take him out of the truck, Gatsby is ready to go to work. His tail wagging madly, he strains at the leash to get to the entrance doors. Gatsby loves PetSmart. With his teddy-bear face and beautiful rust-colored fur, I think he would make an excellent “spokesdog” for the company. Just saying. We stroll the aisles until the class begins, Gatsby politely weaving among customers, not bothering anyone, never barking or misbehaving, occasionally stopping to sniff the merchandise.

Becoming a therapy dog required three sets of six-week classes, passing the test to become a Canine Good Citizen, then an Advance Canine Good Citizen from the AKC, before taking the therapy dog test. He had to sit and not move while I dropped his leash and walked 10 feet away, then come when called. When passing by a treat on the floor, Gatsby had to leave it alone. He had to allow Jamie to physically examine him, opening his mouth, picking up his paws, ruffling his fur. This was not an issue since Gatsby adores Jamie. He aced the test.

Probably the most difficult aspect of this entire process was completing the paperwork. This required me passing a background check, getting a letter of reference as well as providing the Advance Good Citizenship certificate, answering a dozen or so questions sent by ATD on how to handle Gatsby in public in certain situations, and getting a health verification form filled out by our veterinarian. Getting into graduate school didn’t require as much paperwork, though I am definitely not complaining. It was worth all the effort.

One of the main reasons to get certification is to obtain liability insurance so that when Gatsby is in public we are protected if he caused someone injury. That is about as likely as me biting someone. He is the sweetest, gentlest, and most submissive dog I have ever had the privilege to care for. Mollie had to teach him how to bark, and even now he only does so halfheartedly. Mollie more than makes up for Gatsby’s reluctance to bark.

They are both terrific dogs but not exactly fierce protectors of home and hearth. We often have friends or college students come over and let the dogs out, helping us out if we have to be out of town for several hours. The dogs are always thrilled to meet new people, jumping up on the couch to get close to the visitor. Burglars likely also would be welcomed with open paws.

Mollie is now enrolled in the intermediate training program under Jamie. I suspect she will be “A” student as well.

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