It's common to want to go on endlessly about your own dog. Every once in a while, if you're lucky, you get to know a dog like BJ, a dog you find yourself talking about as passionately as if he were your own.
BJ is the most gorgeous American Bulldog I've ever seen, but that isn't why I'm in love with him. I'm a working dog girl, so it takes more than a pretty face to rock my world. This dog delivers.
BJ is my favorite kind of dog -- a walking contradiction. I've been training dogs professionally for thirteen years and I've loved many dogs, varying in breed from miniature long-haired Dachshunds to Standard Poodles. But my breed of choice is the working German Shepherd. I've trained many police service dogs in my career, and I specialize in the working dog sport of Schutzhund.
Every breed has its own image and stereotype. We've heard about American Bulldogs that do Schutzhund as well as participating in unique activities such as hog catching, iron dog competitions, and weight pulling. Think American Bulldog, think macho.
BJ fits this stereotype quite well. He was bred by Alison and Randee Bybee. He is a Suregrip line dog. His father was a working hog dog called Ice Man who belonged to Kyle Symmes. His mother, Old Rip, was a Rip n' Woody daughter owned by the Bybees. In other words, BJ has machismo written all over him.
In the psychological word game of free association... well, you do it yourself. Got the picture? Fasten your seat belts, ladies and gentlemen. We're just warming up. If there's such a thing as a Renaissance dog, I'm about to introduce you to him.
BJ belongs to my friend Christi, and I have yet to see a combination more perfectly matched. Many children in the pediatric oncology department at Stanford’s Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital are grateful that God put BJ and Christi together. BJ and Christi help these brave children in the greatest fight of their life. These small children endure physical and emotional pain that most adults will never have to face - the very thought of it is hard to take. It's a little easier, though, when you picture the child hugging BJ, the big, strong gentle giant, as she undergoes the chemotherapy treatment. As the chemo flows through her veins, and attacks the cancer, BJ helps her fight the pain, and the fear.
This dog always had incredible talent for tracking and obedience. Aware of Christi's experience in training and titling working dogs, I encouraged her to train BJ in Schutzhund, but she envisioned a more altruistic destiny. BJ loves to engage people, and is a total showoff with a collection of parlor tricks that grows more and more creative. How many dogs do you know that will sneeze on command? Christi saw this strong desire to interact, but she also knew that this loving, affectionate dog had a profoundly intuitive strength and she knew just where to use it.
It seems only right that a dog as smart as BJ would end up at Stanford.
Although BJ exemplifies the energy and temperament traits of the true working dog, he also has an on/off switch that is amazing. This powerful, intact male American Bulldog has a truckload of drive, and yet he can cap that energy, and channel his loving, affectionate, intuitive self exclusively during his Stanford Hospital visits.
In 2001, Christi began the process of training BJ as a Certified Therapy Dog, and preparing him for the Delta test, which he would need to pass before he could begin working in a hospital. The biggest challenge Christi faced in passing the Delta test was working on controlling BJ's level of happiness and joy when people would crowd around him, as BJ's natural reaction was, "Yeaaaa, it's a party!" Christi worked very hard to help BJ understand that he needed to remain calm and quiet for this.
The Delta test begins with a basic obedience test and evaluation -- no problem for a dog who had passed his CGH, Schutzhund Bh, and OB1 tests with flying colors.
Next comes the temperament test, in which new "stressors" are continually added to a dog in a mock hospital setting to see his reaction. The stressors include loud noises, people yelling, and bumping into the dog while a crowd surrounds the dog. The crowd includes people in wheelchairs and walkers. The test is deliberately set up to evaluate how the dog can handle situations that dogs are not typically exposed to, including "triggers" for a dog's defense drive, such as patients gesticulating wildly and showing unusual body language.
Imagine telling your dog to sit quietly as a person in a robe with a walker comes down the hall toward them. No problem, right? Now the person starts slapping their robe violently, slamming the walker hard on the floor with each movement toward you, staring hard at your dog, and making weird, grunting noises that grow louder the closer they get. Once they are about six feet from your dog, they ask if they can pet your dog. Your dog must now greet the person in a friendly manner and allow petting. Your dog cannot bark or show any type of shyness or aggression during this exercise. Welcome to one small portion of the Delta test.
As I interviewed Christi for this article, she mentioned something I've heard Search and Rescue/Disaster Response trainers talk about, in terms of the toll it takes on dogs psychologically - the smells of death and fear.
As any tracking trainer can tell you, there is one thing axiomatic about man trying to comprehend the scenting ability of the canine. The more we know, the more we know we know nothing. We can't even wrap our heads around what our dogs process with their amazing sense of smell.
Now think of a hospital. The smells are overwhelming even to a human. Magnify that exponentially, and that is what these Certified Therapy Dogs deal with. The smells of medications, urine, feces, fear and death are combined with the chaotic environment of a large hospital like Stanford. Sharing elevators with gurneys, loud noises on the PA systems, patients wearing masks and hooked up to equipment that, from a dog's perspective, must make them look like Darth Vader from Star Wars. Talk about sensory overload.
All of this must be taken in stride and ignored by these exemplary dogs. They have work to do, and they know it.
After BJ passed his test, and became a Certified Therapy Dog, he and Christi began working at Stanford in the PAWS (Pet Assisted Wellness at Stanford) program, visiting general hospital adult patients. BJ would usually sit in a chair next to the bed so the patients could reach him. Christi was initially nervous about BJ getting overly excited and leaping off the chair onto the bed. In fact, getting on the bed was out of the question in the beginning because of his energy level in this new, exciting job! Always the "quick study," BJ very soon came to understand what was expected of him at the hospital. He learned to downshift into his hospital demeanor - quiet, calming behavior. In a matter of a few months, he learned to become a huge couch potato -- or bed potato -- as soon as they arrived at the hospital. Christi observes that people at the hospital always comment on how mellow and quiet he is. We joke about how those in the hospital would never recognize BJ's high-drive alter ego, the one that takes over the instant he walks out of Stanford Hospital.
If there was ever a logical place for Certified Therapy Dogs, it would surely be pediatric oncology. Recognizing this, the innovative administrators at Lucille Packard Children's Hospital (LPCH) at Stanford decided to launch an experimental program, using Delta Dogs to help children get through the overwhelming experience of fighting cancer. In the Day Hospital at LPCH, children come in for the day to receive their IV Chemotherapy treatment. The children are there for several hours, sometimes all day.
Christi was asked if she and BJ would participate in this program. Realizing the contribution they could make, Christi readily agreed. She and BJ were now serving at Stanford two days a week.
Christi describes working with the children. "BJ gets up on the bed with a child and just lays perfectly still cuddling with them, with an occasional kiss of course! The nurses can come in and he'll have tubes draping all over him, but he just lays there next to the child. He also helps kids get through various painful procedures such as IV starts or shots. He will climb up on the examining table in the IV room next to the child. It doesn't matter how high or how small the table is, BJ (with assistance, of course) will get up on it to be next to the little patient. Sometimes he barely fits and is hanging over the edge, but he's determined to be next to that child. In the IV room, they put a pillow on the child's lap, and BJ will put his head down on the pillow. They will pet BJ or talk to him as a distraction or in many cases wrap their arm around his neck and squeeze while the IV is being started. Once it's all over, BJ is very happy and gives lots of kisses!!! He senses their tension I'm sure, and the relief when it's over.
BJ seems to know or at least tries to figure out what each child wants or needs, and he'll do whatever he can to make them happy. Some children like to be kissed in the face, some don't. One little girl loves to have BJ kiss her bald head. She'll take her hat off and put her head down and he just licks and licks while she's laughing and laughing. When there's a very small child that's maybe a little bit scared of him, he'll lay down on the ground and put his head down and not move so they'll be less scared to approach him. While they touch him, he lays perfectly still because he knows if he moves, they might get scared, except for his tail, of course, which is thumping on the ground.
I don’t take toys to the hospital because of his incredible strong toy drive ‘ too many tubes would be flying!!!’ And it actually was a little bit of a challenge the first few months when a child would have a teddy bear in the room. BJ would see that toy and get that glazed-over look in his eyes as he focused on where we hid the toy for his visit.
Those were the early days. Now he knows teddy bears are off limits in the hospital and doesn't even seem to notice them anymore. A child can even hold a teddy bear right next to BJ, while petting him, and BJ pretends not to even notice the toy that normally he would be obsessing over.
After each visiting session, BJ gets a squeaky toy as soon as we get out of the hospital doors. The minute we get out of the doors, I hand him his toy, he shifts back into his regular ‘drive’ mode, grabs that toy and carries it all the way to the car. He's back 'on.' "
Whenever I am at Christi's house, I love to check out the photographs all over her home... Christi with friends, Christi with BJ, always LOTS of pictures of BJ. One day I noticed the cutest picture of BJ with a beautiful little girl. I didn't recognize her, and I asked who she was. Christi said, "That's Audrey." I commented on how beautiful she was -- she seemed to have this spiritual little face. I also observed that you could see how much she loved BJ, just from the picture. Christi agreed, and then she told me the story of Audrey.
Audrey was 6 years old and had leukemia. She was one of "BJ's patients." She was very quiet and small, but she loved BJ. He would lay on her bed while she would brush him or pet him. One of her favorite things was to make BJ's ear stand up like the "flying nun." She would giggle like crazy whenever she was successful at this balancing act. Once BJ realized how much she loved this, it turned into a team effort. Whenever he was laying on his side next to her, and he felt her picking up his ear, he would deliberately lay very quietly, taking care not to move his head. Audrey was not the only one in the hospital entertained by the flying nun look. Nurses walking by would glance through the glass wall, stop and point to this comical image as they themselves giggled like children.
One day Audrey was finished with her treatment but wouldn't let her mom take her home until BJ got there and she had her play time with him. Audrey needed to get a shot in the thigh each time she was there. The first time BJ visited her, her leg was injected while BJ was on the bed with her. She didn't make a peep. The nurses said that was the first time in two years that she didn't scream when getting her shot. She would wait for BJ to arrive (or another dog if it wasn't BJ's day) to get these painful injections.
The sad ending to this touching story is that Audrey lost her fight with cancer. Lucille Packard Children's Hospital has a "last wish" for dying children. One of Audrey's last wishes was that her dad would bring Scooby-Doo treats for BJ. When Christi and BJ came for their visit the next week, Audrey had left this world, but there was a wrapped present waiting for BJ – Scooby-Doo treats. One of Audrey's last wishes was to bestow a final gift to her loving friend with the flying nun ears.
The strides we've made in cancer research are impressive.
The story of Audrey reminds us that there is much more work to be done. I believe in my heart that one day we will cure cancer. Until that day, and as long as any child needs to face a painful procedure to help her battle for life itself ... we should thank God for dogs like BJ and owners like Christi.
Their lives are an inspiration and a tribute to the words of Winston Churchill, "We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give."