Sunday, November 11, 2007

Moment of Glory

Yesterday, Nov. 10th, THSD got its moment of glory on the field at the final UT football home game.

Thanks to Roger Beasley Volvo's invitation to join them in their 2007 car giveaway, I had one of the highpoints in my nearly 20 years with Texas Hearing & Service Dogs.

Between the first and second quarters, I, along with Pearl, the Wonder Dog (demo dog for THSD), got to walk out onto the field at DKR Memorial Stadium and receive a giant check for a $2,500 donation from Roger Beasley Volvo. The best part was that Roger Beasley Volvo had produced a 60 second video from some videos THSD provided, and they played it on the Jumbotron.

I almost started crying, it was so beautiful. RB Volvo captured our essence perfectly. Scene after scene of our amazing teams working together, with the wonderful voiceover and music adding even more emotion. And a giant THSD logo flying through the screen towards the audience when the voice says "And wouldn't you like to be a part of it!"

The UT and Texas Tech fans actually started APPLAUDING when it was over!

Throughout the rest of the game and after, people recognized me and Pearl and told us how great they thought THSD and the video were. The Director of Women's Athletics told me that was the best presentation they've ever had. When I took Pearl on a grass break, people would say, "There's that Hearing Aid Dog" (well, they were in the ballpark). When I was walking to the car after the game, people would stop us and compliment us on THSD's work. They actually asked me for my card because they wanted to volunteer. Some families who were already in their cars actually rolled down their windows to compliment us!

Working with Texas Hearing & Service Dogs has always been rewarding and fulfilling. But this was truly a moment of glory!

Behind the scenes - training talk
If you like to read about animal training, read on:

Getting Pearl, the Wonder Dog onto the field was a very interesting challenge. Why? Two things:

Bevo and cannon fire.

The correct way to work with an animal in a new environment and around new, and possibly frightening stimuli, is to desensitize it ahead of time. You gradually expose the animal to the stimuli at very small levels and reward it for being calm or for ignoring the stimuli and doing something else, like looking at you or performing behaviors you ask for. For example, with a longhorn steer, or other animal, you would have your dog with you and the other animal WAY far away to a point where your dog isn't really bothered by it. You work with your dog, asking for eye contact, rewarding it for calmness and asking it for typical behaviors it already knows how to do so it can be successful.

Gradually, you bring the other animal closer, but so gradually that your dog can continue to be calm and engage in the desirable behaviors mentioned above. If you proceed too quickly, you will know because your dog will exhibit fear instead of focusing its attention on you.

Well, in this case, gee whiz, we didn't have any longhorn steers, thousands of screaming fans and a cannon firing every five minutes to practice with ahead of time. I suppose I could have looked for a CD with cannon fire and started off by playing it very quietly but you still don't get that lovely vibration like the world is going to end.

So they're leading us to the field about 10 minutes ahead of time. Pearl sees Bevo and Bevo sees Pearl. (For those of you who may not know, Bevo, a longhorn steer, is the University of Texas mascot and stands on the sidelines during the football games.) We had to walk right by him and initially, they wanted us to wait just across the sidewalk from him. Well, a longhorn steer is not lacking in confidence. Bevo makes eye contact with Pearl and she displays some very apparent characteristics of fear. Freezing alternating with with attempts to flee the area for a nice Starbucks where the only essence of bovine is that which is poured into the cups.

This was NOT fun for me; however, knowing training principles, I set to work with the limited time I had. I asked the UT folks escorting us if we could move a little past Bevo along the sidelines. They were extremely gracious in agreeing. We edged along to the actual sidelines where the sports photographers, State Troopers, Sheriff's deputies, UT Police and various other personnel stood. Pretty near whatever that thing is where the football players warm up their arms by throwing a ball into a PVC pipe and net contraption. (So, I'm a roller derby girl at heart - that's a sport, too!)

Throughout the next 10 minutes of Bevo stil glaring at Pearl from his domain and intermittent cannon fire, Pearl and I worked on calm behavior on the field. At first, I got a little eye contact from her - big accomplishment - yay! Then, finally, I started getting some sits, downs and even a few handshakes. Everytime the cannon went off, I gave her a jackpot of treats if she was calm. After a few minutes of this, she even started looking at me in anticipation of treats when the cannon fired.

By the time we walked out onto the field, I had a dog that was relatively under control, instead of a panicked animal that refused to walk or was bent on fleeing the scene.

When it was time to leave the field, she still refused to walk past Bevo. We couldn't stay on the sidelines for the next three quarters so I improvisded and just picked her up until we got around the corner from Bevo. After that, she trotted happily by my side as we made our way along the goal line and out the other end of the field past the now quiet cannon. Folks, there's nothing like carrying a 45 lb Border Collie in a dress and high heels (me, not the Border Collie), but a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do.

So that was several weeks of desense training crammed into 8 minutes. Happily, the training principles held true as they always do. Knowing them helped me just proceed along with the training instead of panicking or becoming frustrated. It's just a matter of - let's find a starting point, work from there and we'll get some progress.

I hope to have some photos here for you soon. Until then,