It’s no secret that Groenendaels are an incredible breed. With their jet-black coat as serene as the midnight sky, and amber eyes that hold a contradictory fierceness, it can seem near impossible not to become attached. So, when Roxy immediately took a liking to David Bellis and his wife, Jean, while they visited the Battersea Cats and Dogs Home in 2012, it was to their absolute delight. Yet, they insist that it was Roxy’s incredible zeal to help others that really made them fall in love. This is her story of how she became a fantastic therapy dog.
Roxy’s career as a therapy dog began almost accidentally. David recalls the day that started it all in vivid detail:
“We hadn’t had her very long when, on a walk, we bumped into maybe 30 plus special needs children, from an inner London borough on a day out in the country, with their social workers. Roxy was off the lead … and to my horror just took off right into the middle of this group. All the children ran towards her and abandoned their ball games.”
“We didn’t know Roxy very well ourselves so I ran frantically after her and found her in the middle of a group of excited children. Not all these kids had good motor skills and they all had difficulties in life, of one sort or another; they meant her no harm at all – quite the opposite – and despite that she was being prodded, and poked, her ears and tail were being pulled, her paws fiddled with – all the things that dogs, including Roxy, don’t really like, she not only tolerated this, she fussed and nuzzled them and made it clear she was happy to be with them. It was utterly amazing to us.”
A Happy Coincidence
As intriguing as Roxy’s behavior had been on that day, the Bellis’ admit that they chalked the experience up as a one-off. That was until they observed Roxy’s eagerness to interact with people with autism on a more consistent basis.
On another day, David remembers how Roxy bounded across a peaceful residential street toward a couple they had never encountered before. He and the pair laughed about Roxy’s uber friendly nature and began talking about similar experiences, when the duo mentioned that they were also on the autism spectrum.
After occurrences like the aforementioned continued to happen with Roxy, the couple began wonder if the events were really coincidental. It seemed to the Bellis’ as though Roxy had a knack for detecting persons with autism. Later, Jean decided that she wanted to learn more about therapy dogs and whether Roxy would make a good fit.
Work(ing) like a Dog
Following much research, Jean selected and met with a charity who coordinate therapy dogs. In addition to having an approved handler and being insured, therapy dogs are must remain calm in highly sensitive areas, and have a single opportunity to be assessed for clearance.
“[It was] a stress test, essentially – and it was a bit brutal – a dog trainer screaming at her, inches from her face,” says David. “[She had to tolerate the trainer’s] unpredictable behavior, lots of noise, simulated panic and distress, stuff being thrown around, and once again she was prodded, poked and pulled. Jean was not allowed to touch Roxy, but reassured her verbally throughout. But, if the dogs do anything at all that the trainer is suspicious of, or that might indicate an aggressive or defensive reaction, they are out, and there are no retests. Even jumping up at someone, as in a request for physical reassurance, is an instant fail. Bless her, she passed with flying colors.”
The Keys to Success for a Therapy Dog
Beyond traditional training programs and the assessment, Roxy hasn’t had any additional training to be a therapy dog. Since therapy dogs are different to assistance dogs, they required to perform specific actions. Rather, they are companions who just have to let people pet them.
“The dog doesn’t have to be a saint for this work and Roxy isn’t,” says Jean. “She’s always fine with people, but gets uppity with other dogs sometimes and has to be in charge. If she’s at home and someone comes to the door she’ll bark like crazy [as any other dog would].”
Instead, Jean attributes their success to four key factors that a loving pet-handler duo might achieve:
A Calm Handler
“If you’re stressed, you’ll transmit that to the dog,” says Jean. “If anything ‘kicks off’ the dog will follow your lead. You have to be cool, focused, and very much ‘on’ any signals the dog is giving you.”
“We’ve had Roxy since 2012 and both of us can ‘read’ her intuitively. She ‘talks’ quite clearly in her own way, and body language is a central part of that,” says Jean. “She has had extensive testing. Roxy has never been anything other than kind, motherly, and sometimes protective towards children. But, she is a dog and she’ll react like a dog. Therapy dogs have real responsibility and the situations you go into can be challenging, so you need to be professional.”
A Good Distraction
Jean says, “I’m a great believer in distraction. On the rare occasions that I need her attention to be elsewhere, I’ll use distraction to achieve that such as treats, toys, or just talking to her if necessary.”
“She trusts us – to be humans,” says Jean. “We’re part of her pack, and she expects us to have her back and look after her. Some of the people we meet may harm her accidentally if we weren’t careful. Perhaps, because they are having their own difficulties in understanding the world around them. Her welfare is absolutely at the top of my priorities. I make early decisions. If something is developing and I am not happy, I get her out of the situation really fast. Always calmly – never with a fuss, never running – but swiftly, and talking to her in a normal tone of voice. I never wait to see how it works out.”
She goes on to say that, “We trust her, totally. But, what we trust her to do is to act like a dog. If something goes wrong, it’ll be your fault, not the dog’s. So you have to have peripheral vision, good hand-to-eye coordination and fast reactions.”
Still a Normal Groenendael
The couple agree that Roxy’s personality changes based on the situation that she’s in.
“With other dogs, [she is] bossy and assertive,” says David. “She’s touchy-feely and affectionate with children or anyone she considers her friend – which is basically anyone she has been introduced to, that Jean and I are clearly relaxed and friendly with.”
At any rate, the Bellis’ know that Roxy is still a Groenendael who loves walks as much as the next dog. She is still a loving dog who comforts her owners by sitting on them after they’ve had a taxing day, and makes them laugh every day by doing something unpredictable and silly.
Actually, when she’s not working as a therapy dog, she likes roughhousing in the garden with David. She also enjoys playing mischievous pranks on him from time to time.
He says, “On winter walks she’ll sometimes come charging up behind me very quietly. As she streaks past, she somehow, very gently, whips the glove off my hand. Then she stands 25 yards ahead of me, challenging me to chase her to get it back!”
‘Kay, Nine Years?
While Roxy has quite a number of service years under her belt, David and Jean agree that she isn’t very big on thinking beyond her next meal. So, they’re not sure when will Roxy declare that she’s dog-tired and ready for retirement.
For now, David says that she thoroughly enjoys her time as a therapy dog.
“Once her fluorescent work coat goes on, which announces that she is an official therapy dog and is working, she’s knows she’s going to ‘see her friends’ and she gets excited and happy about it.”
Jean adds, “It isn’t ‘work’ to her, it’s fun, and that’s the way we keep it.”
PetMio would like to thank David and Jean Bellis and Roxy for the exceptional work they do with child and adult patients who have special needs. Moreover, we would like to thank them for sharing their extraordinary story of the real change they are making in the United Kingdom.
To learn more about training your pet to become a therapy dog here in the United States, visit akc.org for information about the American Kennel Club’s Therapy Dog Program.