Today was our regular Therapy Dog gig at the hospital. It was an eventful hour, with challenges and successes. Toby recently (last 6-8 weeks) has been increasingly shy and even anxious, especially at the beginning of the visits. His first reaction when someone reaches to pet him is to back away. He then will sniff the person and let them pat him, but loses interest quickly and wants to move on. He also remains very leery of some patient rooms.
The best part of the visit was when we teamed up with the lovely Lily, a West Highland Terrier, and her teammate Sharee to visit the surgical waiting area. We got the best reception we have received to date. About ten people greeted us with smiles as soon as we stepped off the elevator. Lily and Toby were welcomed by all and fussed over enthusiastically. When Toby sniffed at a woman's purse, she said, "Oh, I have pretzels. Can he have one?" So Toby and then Lily got a little "incentive" that set their tails wagging.
I sat down next to a very kind lady to chat. Toby relaxed onto the floor for a few minutes. It was great to watch his anxiety level go down.
I was astonished when the cell phones came out of pockets and purses to take photos of both dogs. The noise level rose as cries of "Toby! Look here!" "Lily! Over here!" began. Several folks were so proud that they "got one". I wish I had had a chance to admire their shots, but the commotion was affecting Toby and Lily. After a few minutes we politely wished everyone a nice afternoon and got back on the elevator .
The challenging part began when we left the elevator, back on the first floor. Toby decided he'd had enough. He pulled hard down the hall. Unfortunately we already had an audience of staff members and patients. Now MY anxiety level was rising. Toby rallied and returned to me, then let a few more folks pat him. However, it was clearly time to go home, which we soon did.
So far, two strategies to try to help Toby get past whatever this shyness is have occurred to me. One is to continue to partner with another therapy dog whenever possible. That does seem to help. Another would be to just sit quietly with Toby for the first half of the visit and let people approach him while he's relaxed, instead of walking around. We haven't tried this yet.
I also realize that my own nervousness about whether he'll be okay may be going down the leash. Sitting down for a few minutes does seem to help both of us feel more relaxed.
If you have a therapy dog do you have any other suggestions? Toby just turned two - do dogs go through a shy phase at this age? Should I try a different environment? What kind of setting would you suggest? I'm not ready to throw in the towel completely yet, but I acknowledge that it may be that Toby isn't going to have a therapy dog personality. That would be sad for me, but ultimately if I can't help Toby enjoy it, we may have to give up therapy.