I have a therapy dog named Egon. Well, he was supposed to be a therapy dog.
I adopted him in September 2021 from a local shelter. He was a fluffy mess (I’m guessing he’s a terrier/poodle mix) who came and sat calmly next to me on the bench. I decided we were a good fit for one another.
As we drove home, I knew he needed a different name than his original name of “Fat Boy.” I thought of males I respected and liked, and went with my favorite painter, Egon Schiele.
When I got him home that night and he nervously paced about, I quickly realized I was out of my depth. I hadn’t had a dog since I was a kid. I didn’t know what I was doing. I stayed up through the night watching dog videos and crying.
I quickly found a trainer, who assured me Egon could be trained to be a therapy dog (to attend therapy sessions with my clients and be a comfort to them).
So, I spent the next 10 days bonding with Egon. Then, off he went to live with the trainer. It was an expensive investment, but I was also relieved. The deal was that Egon would temporarily live with the trainer while she taught him all of the fundamentals. We would then meet every couple of weeks for me to work on the skills with Egon.
As time progressed, it became clear Egon wasn’t learning new skills. Furthermore, the lack of clarity, consistency, and reliability from the trainer became frustrating. When I spoke with her about my concerns on multiple occasions, she was unable to take ownership of her actions or offer solutions. She had a lot going on in her life (I am intentionally being vague here to protect her privacy and dignity) that she assured me would settle down and not impact training more.
As I tried to give it more time, I saw very little progress and noticed Egon picked up negative behaviors that hadn’t been present before (I’m assuming this came from living with a house full of dogs - not the trainer). Furthermore, the constant back and forth between my home and the trainer’s was proving confusing for Egon (he would often whine and have difficulty transitioning back to my house).
It was clear the trainer could not understand or address my concerns, and so I decided to discontinue the training. It was a heartbreaking decision that I agonized over for weeks. I was so excited for Egon to be certified as a therapy dog.
I had to sit with the disappointment and discern what to do next. I also had to sit with the disappointment in myself. I did not have a signed contract, and therefor was out thousands of dollars (the trainer refused to refund any portion of the fee that I paid in full upfront).
There are so many things I would now do differently that I simply did not consider at the time (such as asking for a clear list of everything Egon would learn, a signed contract, a schedule of training, etc.)
But, I am where I am. This is something I also teach to my therapy clients - acceptance of past ignorance and mistakes, as well as the ability to move forward.
Overall, Egon is a pretty amazing dog. He loves people. He still attends therapy with me. Most therapy sessions he is pretty great. He happily greets clients, cuddles with them a little, and then takes a nap on the floor when the client starts doing art.
And then there are some therapy sessions where he is not so great. There are times he throws his bone around the art therapy room when he wants more attention. Sometimes he chews on my art supplies when he gets bored.
My clients have always been extremely understanding. I think it bothers me more than it does them.
After one session where Egon was particularly restless, I spoke with my clinical supervisor about my frustrations and if I should just leave Egon at home. She suggested that I use the difficult moments with Egon to gather more information about my clients. To see how they respond and interact.
That insight was a turning point for me. I began to stress less and started approaching our therapy sessions together differently. He was no longer just a creature to provide comfort. He was a little dog with his own needs, and I could see how people handled that (ahem, myself included).
For example, when Egon barked at a letter that was unexpectedly slid under the therapy room door by the building manager, my client and I were both startled by Egon's sudden bark. I then checked in with my client about how she felt. We then reviewed how to regulate her nervous system after a disruptive event. It proved to be a chance to go deeper into therapeutic work.
I’ve realized that in initially sending Egon to a trainer, I wanted someone to craft him into the perfect therapy dog and return him. There are actually trainers who do this and do it well (my experience does not negate their success). If I wanted, I could find a more reputable, reliable trainer and ship him off again.
Instead, I’ve started to see Egon more like my therapy clients. That he has emotions and needs. That there are parts of him that could use improvement, but that change takes time. I also acknowledge that I have a large role in how he feels and his behaviors.
I’ve started doing training on my own (I’m following an online course and speaking with a trainer for tailored advice), slowing addressing some of his disruptive behaviors.
In the meantime, I also am learning to internally hold the space between what Egon is and what I wish he could be. Like when he barks at an unexpected human appearing or when he is cuddled up on my client’s lap and then licks them in the face.
Underneath it, I fear I will be judged. That my clients will think I’m not doing enough to train my dog.
Or worse, that they are actually uncomfortable with Egon being present and they simply aren’t telling me because they struggle to assert their own needs and boundaries (and hence, part of the reason they’re in therapy).
All of my own internal anxiety patterns come up with Egon.
Am I enough?
Will I be judged?
Will I upset others (and possibly not be liked)?
I really wanted to be one of those people that gets a dog and proclaims, “My life is so much better!” I’m not that person. Change is difficult for me. New routines and schedules are jarring. Shifting my way of being is challenging. Letting go of expectations and ideals is also hard.
And that’s ok. It’s ok that it is difficult for me. Egon is wonderful practice for me to grow - to address my own disruptive behaviors.
Egon isn’t the therapy dog I imagined. He’s my dog. He’s my little white shadow who eagerly follows me everywhere. He’s a lover of people, chicken, hanging out on the porch, playing at the dog park, walking anywhere and everywhere, and going on mountain hikes with me.
And he also happens to go with me to therapy, too.
Egon and I are currently accepting new adult clients for art therapy.