By Dr. Scott Wilson, Wildrose Therapy Dog Director
Wildrose Sterling (Barney X Ivy) came into this world in September 2016 with great
expectations. As a young pup he showed promise – intensely focused, bold, curious, and driven with a marvelous temperament and obvious willingness to work with his trainer. His training progressed rapidly and his potential for a long gun dog career in the field seemed inevitable but every once and a while nature throws a curve ball. In the early winter of 2017, Sterling’s career aspirations took a sudden turn along a different path. As luck would have it, or as nature designed, Sterling is incredibly patient, friendly, and adaptable, so he decided to investigate a career in animal-assisted intervention. The first step involved expanding his exposure to many more human environments. He accompanied multiple handlers into stairways, hallways, elevators, children’s playgrounds, local parks, restaurants, assisted living facilities, numerous public buildings, and so on to assess his acceptance of these human environments. As expected, he was happy and friendly everywhere and with everyone, and so began his next adventure. After a time enjoying life indoors in a new multi-dog home, Sterling, in collaboration with a new handler, passed his national therapy dog evaluation with flying colors. Sterling and his new handler immediately began therapy visits to a number of facilities. He took to this new job like a duck to water. Sterling reads people like a book, he sits as still as a statue when people seem cautious and allows strangers to approach at their pace. When strangers relax, Sterling puts on his “What’s up Doc?” face with a barely perceptible head tilt and that always brings on the smiles. He seemed destined for a long career as a canine therapist when late that winter a much more important opportunity popped into his life. Wildrose got a call from a disabled Veteran.
Yvonne was struggling with her transition back into civilian life with all of the accompanying changes and stresses, so she started searching for a service dog. Her need was immediate, but the availability of service dogs anywhere was and is severely limited. That’s when Sterling stepped up to volunteer his services and the Create Foundation stepped in to help this Veteran. Sterling was trained and thoroughly evaluated for therapy work with his second handler, but he was not yet trained or evaluated for service work, so Yvonne’s doctor at the VA Clinic in Tupelo prescribed an emotional support animal and Sterling’s new adventure got underway. Sterling moved into his new home (hence the need for the ESA prescription) and began working with yet another handler. (Spoiler alert – it was entirely obvious the first time Sterling met Yvonne that their companionship was headed in the right direction.) Everyone was well aware of the upcoming challenges and they came in rapid succession beginning with a landlord who immediately objected to the presence of a canine absent additional financial arrangements. In his inimitable fashion, just like he charmed the gallery at last year’s Double Gun, Sterling put on a great performance for the landlord and the first significant hurdle was in his rear view. Sterling was given a practice month to adjust to his new home, family, and training. He met new family members, including children and other pets, and they all got along famously. More importantly, within a fortnight Sterling demonstrated that his senses were ready for this new job. During the very first week Yvonne phoned Wildrose to say that Sterling was already marking changes in her behavior. She clearly recalled an incident where Sterling was nudging her toward a sofa and her next conscious memory was waking up on the floor after passing out. Sterling knew something was amiss and he conjured up a new behavior. Later that week, Sterling awakened Yvonne from a nightmare by leaving his customary dog bed beside the master bed and climbing on the master bed for the very first time. Yvonne woke up to see Sterling’s happy “What’s up Doc?” face right in front of her nose. Sterling was clearly discovering novel ways to communicate with his new handler, but we still had considerable work to do to get prepared for his service career. Sterling and Yvonne continued training together through that first month practicing visits to public and very distracting places like Walmart and the Yvonne/Sterling team continued to improve. Over the next several months Yvonne expanded Sterling’s exposure into new training environments, like the VA Clinic, the barber with her children, the doctor’s office, and long-distance car trips to visit additional family. Scarcely any of these events were routine before Sterling joined Yvonne’s family. Sterling quickly learned to adjust his behavior when wearing his service vest and as predicted, the two work as a team and support each other.
Sterling was quite young when he met his last handler. Without a doubt there was definitely a learning curve for both parties and a few hiccups along the way. Wildrose recommends that all working dogs be crate trained. Among other things, the crate helps with house training and provides a safe space for the dog to relax where they can’t eat stuff they shouldn’t. Some service dog handlers recommend multiple quiet times in a crate every day to help the working dog stay focused and alert on the job. The “Home Alone” movie series should never cast a dog as the main character, particularly a dog under 2 years old, not fully acquainted with household paraphernalia, or any canine likely to entertain creative new ideas. Many dog owners, including myself, fail to realize just how much havoc a healthy dog can accomplish in a few short minutes. Yvonne had the displeasure of such an experience with Sterling. Dogs who spend a great deal of time with their handler may develop a touch of separation anxiety as they train for their new responsibilities and young Sterling has a creative imagination. In one instance, when Sterling was comfortably chilling in his crate, someone who shall remain nameless because their intention was good, opened Sterling’s crate in Yvonne’s closed bedroom thinking that would make him happy. To the contrary, Sterling was surprised, a bit confused, and a little anxious in this novel situation, so he began searching for things that reminded him of his handler. This search ended badly when he ingested a pair of earphones and a phone charger. Fortunately, all that material “passed,” and everyone learned from the experience. The Yvonne/Sterling team has come a long way together on their journey and they are just getting started. Sterling has found his calling and he loves his work as well as his new family.