Zinnia and I had an extraordinary day at Bishop Maginn High School Wednesday.
I brought her to my Writing Workshop class, and three of the students, Grace, Katie, and Blue have volunteered to work with me while I train Zinnia in her therapy work. This gives her therapy dog training an important, even radical, new dimension.
Francesca Caputo, a reporter for the Evangelist newspaper in Albany, came to my class to write about Zinnia and (also pretended to want to know about me…:). Zinnia is like that; she sucks up all the air in the room.
The paper has the largest circulation of any weekly newspaper in the area.
It was great. I talked about training dogs, getting Zinnia to pay attention to me, how to get her to sit.
Sue Silverstein brought a bunch of toys and a blanket, and then Grace, Katie, and Blue each took turns calling for her to come and to sit.
Zinnia was remarkably calm and responsive all during the visit.
I was very proud of her. I had the most wonderful time.
We talked about not feeding her steadily, not letting her chew on people, and speaking clearly and forcefully when giving a command. I told them it was important they not simply crank her up by yelling or wrestling or talked too loudly.
The idea was to make her calm, not excited. Therapy dogs are not born, they are made.
I talked about the importance of noticing when she gets excited and doing my calming exercises to settle her down. I suggested giving treats every third or fourth time, not every time she does something right.
Therapy dogs need to be calm, and also to read need and attention. No mistakes are tolerated in environments like hospice or extreme elderly care.
I did my calming training with her twice, and it worked both times beautifully.
Zinnia loved the toys and attention. When she got excited, I called her over to me and had her sit down, then lie down (she doesn’t have a quick lie down yet, too soon, I help her to lie down).
Francesca was thorough; she asked me why I was doing therapy work, how I was training Zinnia. It was fun to talk to her.
Zinnia is a car dog now. I was concerned the ride back and forth would be hard for her, but every time I underestimate her, she sets me straight.
She slept in the back seat all the way to Albany and back. It’s hard for me to believe she’s only eleven weeks old. To the people freaking out because I started working with her and socializing her so soon, I’m happy to remind you once again that you have no idea what you are talking about.
Minding one’s own business is a potent spiritual exercise, although it’s becoming a rare one. Zinnia loves new experiences and is happy to meet all kinds of people. She feels safe everywhere she goes.
This dog is more than ready to get to work, although we are certainly moving in a slow and relaxed pace. My rule, for now, is that it all has to be fun for her. And it was. She is having a blast.
The harder training and work comes in a few months.
Zinnia is more than ready to do this work. She had dozens of interactions with students today; she handled all of them correctly.
What makes this experience so special is the school, of course, it is such a warm and safe and encouraging place. It inspires me and lifts me to be there.
In my years-long search for ways of helping the refugee children, none has welcomed me and opened up to me the way the school has. And as a result, the Army Of Good has swarmed in and done magnificent work.
I thank Principal Mike Tolan and Sue Silverstein for that, and the Archdiocese of Albany. The school embodies the best traditions and aspirations of Christianity. The light still shines.
It is a gift to me as much as anyone else.
It shouldn’t be challenging to help people in need, but it sometimes is. But not at Bishop Maginn.
The other unique part is my idea to include interested students in training. I’ve enlisted six students to be Zinnia’s assistant trainers, the Dog Squad. They are eager and excited. Their enthusiasm is a tonic
Zinnia will grow up with these students, and they will learn about dogs and how to train them. They are all dog lovers, and they are much taken with Zinnia. Watching them will help me prepare Zinnia more deeply and thoughtfully.
Zinnia has the helping spirit inside of her.
I am surprised and impressed with the way Zinnia handles herself. When we walked into the school Wednesday, Principal Tolan suggested I pick her up because the class bell was about to ring, and the halls would soon be jammed with rushing students.
I said no, let her walk, and she didn’t blink as scores of kids rushed past her, many stopping to pat her or hug her.
We carried her up to my class on the second floor.
Then she went into the center of the room and played with the toys Sue left her.
Then one by one, I asked Blue, Clare, and Katie to work with her, and they did.
I love the idea of training Zinnia in the school with some of the students.
Enlisting the students is a fantastic way for her to learn and for the students to learn. I will also use her on exam weeks, during college entrance freakouts, and if individual students are depressed or traumatized or frightened.
As she grows up in school, she will form some powerful relations apart from me and independently of me. I learned today that several students cried when they heard Red died. Dogs can be critical, especially to kids who have suffered so much with persecution and poverty.
One junior came up to Zinnia, shaking and visibly frightened. She said she was always terrified of dogs, something not uncommon among refugees and needy children. I told her I’d take her hand and help her to touch Zinnia.
Zinnia’s tail started wagging the second she saw her and slowly and very carefully, the young woman touched Zinnia’s side and felt her softness and looked into her eyes, and said, “oh, wow.” And then she moved to touch her again. The smile on her face was precious.
Maybe I’ll get her into my Dog Squad.