St. Bonkers

A little over a year ago, I published a blog post about my new puppy, Bonkers. Last Saturday, in a ceremony that included “Pomp and Circumstance,” a diploma and a personalized doggie cookie, he officially became a therapy dog.

In the months before we started training, when I told people what we had planned, they often got that look on their face that said, “You’re kidding, right?” Then they responded with comments about how Golden Retrievers don’t really mature until they’re two or three (or ten). But I had signed up for the Divine Canines training class back in November, right after he passed the Canine Good Citizen test, so I decided to forge ahead. When Bonkers knows what’s expected of him, he’s quite brilliant. It’s only when he’s unsure that he goes into his default mode, which is full-on goofball. I thought if I could communicate to him what we wanted from a therapy dog, he’d deliver. And off we went to “divinity school.”

After the first class, I realized the disbelievers were probably right. Bonkers spent the entire three hours mugging for the other dogs and their people. When the trainer did a little test outside at the end of class, instead of walking loosely, Bonkers lunged to the end of his leash, trying to engage each of the other dogs in a wrestling match. I went home and waited for the email message informing me that Bonkers was being kicked out of the class.

A couple of days later I did receive an email, but it was simply some suggestions from the trainer about how I could help Bonkers with his impulse control. We spent the rest of that week working on sit/stays while I met the UPS driver at the front door and sang old disco songs while doing my best John Travolta impersonation in the living room. The second training session was better, and I finally had a chance to notice most of the other dogs weren’t perfect either. Over the next five weeks, Bonkers and I did our homework. We walked the aisles of Home Depot and Cabelas and hung out at restaurants and breweries, meeting dozens of new people and dogs. We made numerous trips to Tomlinson’s where the clerks cheerfully practiced with us and rewarded Bonkers with treats. Through it all, however, I still had a nagging feeling that Bonkers just wasn’t quite ready. Sometimes he sat perfectly still while being petted, but other times he stood excitedly or started obsessively licking people’s feet.

On the Thursday before our last class, Bonkers and I made our last practice trip to Half Price Books. I needed some children’s books for the Little Free Library Dave is building for me, and I doubted whether I would actually get any shopping done with Bonkers tagging along, but as I scavenged the shelves, he sprawled at my feet patiently. As we were finally leaving the store, the door opened and a line of kids filed in. They looked like middle-schoolers, obviously on a field trip from the Texas School for the Deaf. As they filed by us, they poked each other and pointed at Bonkers, and as each child noticed him, they smiled or laughed. I realized that the thing I thought was holding him back is the very thing that makes him special. He’s a goofball.

A couple of days later, we were at our last training session, waiting to take the “test,” when the photographer’s young son entered the room and came straight for Bonkers. Bonkers continued in his down, as the boy put out his hand to meet him. Bonkers gave him a gentle lick, so the boy sat down next to him. Bonkers licked his hand a few more times and then relaxed as the boy petted his head and his ears and his shoulders and his back. I never issued a command. Bonkers never even looked at me, and that’s the moment I knew that Bonkers is, in fact, divine.

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