OAKHURST — Every year at local schools, graduating senior students are tasked with completing a community service activity. When Yosemite High School started up last year, Joe Campbell, 18, was one such student, planning his Senior Project. Once Joe graduates with the Class of 2017, he’s going to pursue International Studies at Southern Oregon University. In the meantime, he still has work to do.
For his project, Joe wanted to help people, in general, and decided specifically that he’d like to visit hospital patients and people in assisted living homes to lift their spirits. Joe spent time with his own grandfather when the elder was hospitalized, and felt that kind of personal contact would be good for others.
It was a great plan, but there was one flaw. It turns out that in most cases, in order to visit people who are sick and lonely, Joe needed to be either a friend or relative — or to have a dog.
That’s where Gus came in. Gus is Joe’s eight-year-old Corgi, the pet Joe’s had since Gus was a puppy and Joe was a little boy. Gus is a smart dog with a good temperament, the Campbell family agrees, so it seemed like Gus would be a good fit to be trained as a therapy dog.
Joe looked into the idea and researched the possibilities. He found out that a therapy dog needs to be registered with Therapy Dogs International (TDI), a volunteer organization dedicated to regulating, testing and registration of therapy dogs and their volunteer handlers for the purpose of visiting nursing homes, hospitals, various institutions, and anywhere therapy dogs are needed.
Gus is a good dog but, at that point, wasn’t trained professionally, so Joe got in touch with Gail Hawksworth of MySham.
“I couldn’t have done it without Gail,” says Joe. “She helped on her own time and was helping the entire time.”
The first step, once Joe called Gail, was for a professional evaluation to determine if Gus would be well-behaved and calm, as a good therapy dog must be.
“The answer was yes,” says Gail, who has spent a lifetime training and showing champion canines. “We met a couple of times and he took my group classes for five weeks, along with private lessons and trips to Fresno for practice testing. We spent time going to public stores for distractions, and teaching Gus to pay attention to his owner versus all the wonderful things going on around him.”
The training process tested Joe’s patience on days when things weren’t going right, he admits. He knew what he wanted to do: stay calm and push through with Gus. Certain commands were more difficult than others, says Joe, like getting Gus to lie down.
“I spent an entire day working on it and finally he did it, which was great,” Joe remembers. “I feel proud of Gus’s accomplishments. It was a long process, with over 30 hours of training.”
One of the most impressive behaviors that Joe trained Gus for was the “leave it“ command, according to Gail. Joe gives the command, “leave it!” as they walk by food, for instance, and Gus will fall back behind Joe and not even look at the contraband on the ground.
Joe followed through with everything Gus needed fine-tuning on, Gail notes, and ultimately accomplished everything they set out to do.
Joe and Gus took two practice tests under Gail’s watch to prepare for the final TDI test, and they even visited Oakhurst Living Center to see how that experience would be for all concerned.
“We went to the Community Living Center in February, and I was so proud of Joe and Gus,” says Gail. “Joe has a very pleasant demeanor and the residents really enjoyed talking with him. Gus, with his big soft brown eyes, made everyone melt.”
There were distractions including other dogs and even a rooster, Gail points out, but Joe and Gus came through the exercise successfully.
“They were totally awesome and so well-behaved.”
Finally, Joe and Gus took the TDI test in early March at the PetCo in Fresno.
Gus had to prove he was willing to follow commands including sit and stay, lie down and stay, and be able to walk with a loose leash. Joe had to prove he was able to make Gus be willing.
“They passed the TDI test with flying colors, while others did not pass,” Gail reports. “I have to brag and say they were the best team there! Joe’s mom Sarah even took the test for handling and she passed. Well done, Mom!”
Joe’s original goal was to talk to people, and now he says having the dog is ten times better. Gail agrees.
“It does my heart good to see the bond and closeness between a dog and its owner. Then, to see the enjoyment that a dog and its owner share with others, and the love and smiles they put on their faces, I feel very proud of Joe and Gus and honored that they came to me to help them establish their achievement! Congratulations Joe and Gus!”