by: Scott R. Wilson
More than a decade ago in Ireland a litter was born to Intl FTCH Rozel Rocket of Tasco and FTW Meadowbrook Lass. One of the pups in this litter was Intl FTW Turning Teal, a remarkable yellow Labrador the Wildrose family has come to know by his call name “Widgeon.”
Widgeon, the “Gentleman’s Gundog TM”
Much like Widgeon, his pups have proven to be exceptional hunters, trekkers, companions and service dogs.
We are happy to report that Widgeon is quite healthy and in the 12 short months since he officially launched his retirement career as a Pet Partners® Therapy Dog he has earned and been awarded his AKC therapy dog title. (The April 2016 issue of the Wildrose Journal documents Widgeon’s retirement.)
Widgeon’s retirement adventure has helped inspire Wildrose Kennels to expand their Wildrose Service Companions program. Widgeon took to his new animal-assisted activities like a duck to water. Clearly his genetics coupled with years of experience at Wildrose helped prepare Widgeon for therapy dog work. For decades Wildrose has bred and trained dogs that provide special services for humans in addition to companionship. Widgeon’s remarkable performance in his new therapy role prompted the Wildrose staff to consider a specific training program for therapy dogs. Widgeon’s performance compelled me to investigate when, where, why, and how canines developed the social cognitive skills needed for this inter-species cooperation.
The Human-Canine Bond
The earliest evidence of dog domestication suggests that dogs were held in the same high esteem as humans 8000 years ago in Siberia. Cohabitation and cooperation with canines filled a very unique niche among mammals domesticated by humans. Dogs have special skills in comprehending human communicative behaviors that developed as a result of domestication. This social cognitive evolution was realized through selective breeding. The dog breeds we see today have genetic roots that trace back only a few hundred years. However, modern dogs share a genetic history with the dogs from Siberia. Humans recognized the many useful characteristics of our canine companions and we have successfully bred dogs in search of some very specific behaviors. In the last few years we have finally begun to examine this human-canine connection from the dog’s perspective. MRI scans have demonstrated that dogs process speech much like people. Meaningful words activate the left side of a dog’s brain and intonation stimulates the right side. Praising words in an enthusiastic tone activate neural circuits associated with reward in the same manner as petting or eating. Beyond motion and sound the human-canine mutual gaze has been shown to increase oxytocin concentrations in both humans and dogs. This supports the existence of an interspecies oxytocin-modulated positive loop facilitated and modulated by just a gaze. Apparently dogs do feel a mutual interspecies bond and that brings us full circle to the hero of this story, Widgeon.
Working with my canine companion Widgeon as an animal-assisted intervention team is truly a rewarding experience and I am pretty sure that Widgeon feels the same. By just entering a room, a steady dog with the uncanny ability to gaze right into your soul brings a smile to nearly every face. We work as a team to collectively interpret the cognitive cues that all humans project. On rare occasions we meet a person who is very fearful of dogs but we are always vigilant to maintain a safe distance and keep all parties comfortable. Remarkably, several people who admitted that they were so fearful of dogs, that they had never touched one, actually found Widgeon to be so peaceful that they eventually requested a little touch. Our team has participated in a wide variety of events including one or more at a Crisis Nursery, Women’s Shelter, Medical School, Law School, Veterans in Higher Education, Veterans Home, Assisting Living Facility, Nursing Home, Residential and Out Patient Behavioral Health Clinics, Children’s Museum, Public Museum, Community Center, Public and Private Libraries, K-12 School, Survivor Retreat, Athletic Event, and more. There comes a time in the life of every working retriever when their active workload must be reduced to maintain good health. At the same time these remarkable canines are still driven to work, so their job description needs to evolve. For Widgeon we simply adjusted the amplitude of his animal-assisted interventions. His retrieves got shorter, some retrieves even moved indoors, but he still gets to work with his handler and his mind remains sharp. In previous years Widgeon would light up when his handler picked up a shotgun or a “field” bag. Now he lights up when I grab his service dog vest and “go” bag. His tail begins to swing and his inner puppy bubbles to the surface. He is well aware that we are off for a short drive to explore new places and meet new people. Widgeon is a classic Wildrose gun dog so we never bring food for a reward; the rewards he anticipates before, during or after our visits always involve retrieves. All working dogs need to adjust their activities as they gracefully age. In light of Widgeon’s remarkable acceptance of his new responsibilities and my growing experience with working retrievers, I have become a tireless advocate for retired working dogs.
Wildrose Therapy Companions
I presented Widgeon’s successful retirement career to his home kennel in person and through a journal article (vide supra) and the response was spectacular. The entire Wildrose Kennels staff were thrilled about Widgeon’s healthy new career. Wildrose Kennels has traditionally developed multi-purpose canines. Their gundogs can work enthusiastically in the field during the day and join the family as steady companions in the evening. Their family companion dogs can simultaneously provide a 24/7, lifesaving alert service to a family member suffering from Type 1 diabetes. Other Wildrose scent detection dogs perform remarkable services at work and yet most still live interactively with their handler’s family. Their adventure dogs perform essential services on the trail but are entirely comfortable spending evenings with the family in front of the fire or the TV. Last summer I began discussions with the staff at Wildrose about expanding their training programs to include an option for therapy dogs. To my delight the staff was very supportive. Apparently, many Wildrose clients had already expressed an interest in working their dogs in a therapy environment. We discussed the possibility of training and employing retired sires and dams for therapy work. We discussed the nature of a program to train retrievers for a duel life style that includes therapy work. We discussed the need for training and evaluating animal-assisted therapy dog teams. We discussed many options for developing and maintaining a program that could provide a lasting service to the Oxford community. We also discussed the possibility of developing a program that could migrate to other communities. Now we have an expanded staff and a Wildrose Service Companions Director to help develop, optimize, and support this expansion of services. And, Widgeon is no longer the only family member with a new retirement career.
The New Year brings in new, exciting opportunities for the Wildrose community. We are adding a therapy dog component to our long list of program options. Similar to most of the Wildrose training programs we plan to offer multiple training levels. Our basic obedience course will provide the foundation for our therapy dog program that will then add socialization and basic tools required for every therapy dog. Clients will have the option to have their Wildrose dog started with a dual purpose that includes a therapy dog component in combination with gun dog training, adventure dog training, or any of the advanced dog training options. Clients will also have an advanced option to have their Wildrose dog finished with an AKC Therapy Dog title in combination with any other Wildrose advanced training component. The caveat for this advanced therapy dog training is that the owner must independently train to complete his or her contribution to their animal-assisted intervention team. The really good news is that your Wildrose dog will do most of the work and he or she will love every minute.
Widgeon is still statuesque, he still prances when he walks, his ears still bounce in rhythm to his step, and he still pays particular attention to the dams. He will forever be my hero and the inspiration for expanding the Wildrose Service Companions program to include therapy dog training.
For details and references about the anthropology noted above or for more information about Wildrose Service Companions, please contact
Scott R. Wilson
Wildrose Service Companions Director
(217) 848-0170 (voice, text, FaceTime, Skype)
Travelling Trainer LLC
Materials Chemistry Laboratory Director, Retired
School of Chemical Sciences
University of Illinois Urbana Champaign