CUDDLES ON COMMAND
…A Whitby Tail
Judith Coche, Ph.D.
The pup, at six months, looked like a cross between a tuxedo-clad teddy and a dog in spats. He did not walk. He pranced. When he pranced, the spats danced over his fuzzy black evening slippers. The teddy bear look came from the brown button eyes, the wet black nose, and the black wavy fuzz that framed his body. We named him Whitby Anderson. The name fit the pup…We thought Hans Christian would have been proud to share the same last name. We were.
Whitby was put to work at this young age as soon as he flew from across the country to be part of our family. His life career had been pre-chosen. He had been carefully selected from his contemporaries because of a loving, outgoing nature that never stopped giving, and a longish, wavy tail that wagged incessantly. Whitby was destined to be a therapy dog.
Judith knew therapy dogs. As a Clinical Psychologist, she had discovered in the decade before Whitby came to exist, that a golden retriever added a dimension to her Clinical Psychology Practice that no human could duplicate. Spinnaker, Whitby’s flaxen-haired predecessor, had greeted, sniffed, and loved clients for 8 of his ten years on earth. Day after day, week after week, clients left The Coché Center with long golden hairy souvenirs of their appointments with Judith. Or was it their appointments with Spinnaker? Sometimes the two seemed to blend into a melange of multi-specied help. At least, that’s what the clients reported.
Suddenly it was Whitby’s turn to fill this job left by very big paws. And the clients were very ready to love him. They had heard about this little known breed that Judith had found called the Portuguese water Dog. They had heard that she had actually taken 3 days from the clinical psychology practice to go to Carlisle, Pennsylvania to watch this breed cavort and prance and hang out with their families. Judith had come back to report that she had seen hundreds of these dogs, and that she was certain that this was the right dog for The Coché Center. Time would tell.
Most of the clients liked animals. Many had cats or dogs of their own. Some, city dwellers with busy lives, wished they could have their own pet. But this breed was new to them. It was how big? Had what kind of hair? It wouldn’t shed like Spinnaker had? And, was the breed really as smart as poodles?
Whitby landed at the airport, newly torn from his Mom and his littermates. He said hi to his new brother, a Balinese cat, and his new home with the city garden in the back. He peed, ate, and napped. When he woke up from his long journey, he was dressed in a red bandana, led on a leash, and walked to work for the first time. He walked past Washington Square, the park with all the city dogs. He walked past Emma’s Canine Training Center, where he would make new friends as he got older. He and Judith and John walked on the brick-paved historic sidewalks of tree-lined Society Hill, and made their way to the business center of Philadelphia.
Whitby did not know he was supposed to be afraid of the city noise or the traffic, so he wasn’t. Instead, he pranced perkily along, soaking up the atmosphere that was to become home to him. He took special note of the pigeons, and the squirrels, and the other dogs.
He did well on his first elevator ride to the fourth floor. He lay down and waited until it was over. As he entered The Coché Center, Judith greeted a client. She introduced the pup to the client, who began to utter the most wonderful “oohs and aaahs”. The sounds were music to Whitby’s ears. Verbal cookies. As the client bent to pet him, his tail slapped the waiting room coffee table.
He toddled into the treatment room and looked around at the tall glass windows and carpeted floor. Now what? Judith and the client sat in couches that were made of leather…. The clients said the leather absorbed the tears…but Whitby saw no tears. The client, still overcome with enthusiasm for the beastie, continued to “OOH” and ”AAH”. Whitby thought a minute. Then he did what seemed natural. He cocked his head, looked straight into her eyes for 45 seconds, sat at attention, and leaped…. Into her lap. Judith smiled with relief…the pup would be as wonderful in this job as she had hoped. “Cuddles!” She said. “Whitby CUDDLES!” The client, laughing and wrapping her arms around this delightful fuzzy bundle of puppylove, beamed at Whitby. He beamed back. “Whitby…good cuddles” said Judith, “GOOOD cuddles!”
Whitby heard nothing except the lively breathing of the recipient of his affection. He wanted more. He snuggled deeper into the client’s lap, and settled down. He had found his new home, and his new career. It was a match between a family, a field of work, and a wonderful pup.
For the next few days, client after client was involuntarily treated to a lapfull of fuzzy puppy love. Nobody said they minded. But Judith knew the day would arrive when a client would say “Err…I don’t like dogs” or “This is my good business suit” or “I only have one pair of stockings with me. ’’ So, she decided to try to train Whitby to only jump into client’s lap if invited.
Judith had never heard of a “Cuddles” command, but it could not be too hard to figure out. She knew that Service Dogs often did “My Lap” when they visited nursing homes and hospitals. Surely “cuddles” could be trained. The motivation was in place…. Sheer unadulterated pleasure for both client and pup…no need for cookies or dried liver here. The pup was a small learning sponge at six months of age. Whitby seemed to be waiting to be trained on how to behave on the job. He was willing to do just about anything to please Judith and John and Juliette, their youngest daughter. Clients that loved dogs, or needed tactile warmth could be selected to help with the training process. The staff at the Coché Center could be drafted to reinforce the behavior with them and with clients. Yup, it could be done.
It seemed that the command required learning a series of behaviors. First, Whitby needed to sit or stand in place in front of the seated client. Then he had to receive a verbal and hand command. Then came the reinforcement of human petting. Then, perhaps hardest of all. there needed to be a way for the pup to know that he needed to get off this wonderful thing called a lap. This required lots of praise for a command well executed.
Bit by bit, Cuddles on command came into existence. The hand command was easy for Judith to figure out. She asked clients to pat the leather couch next to their lap twice, loudly, and to say “Whitby…cuddles!” That was the pup’s cue to jump next to the client. Then the client pulled the pup to him or her as close as felt good, and the fun began. When the cuddles had lasted long enough, the client or Judith said “Whitby…off!” and the pup rolled off the couch to the carpet and toddled to his new bed under Judith’s desk.
The next step for Judith was to train the clients. Training was indeed needed. An occasional client understood canine behavior, and got their instructions on the first or second try. But many clients, as much as they wanted the pup on their lap, had no idea of how to follow Judith's instructions. Their voices were too loud, and it scared Whitby. Or their hand signals were confusing and he did not know how to please them, Or their eyes did not look into his, and he lost the desire to pay full attention. Judith realized, much to her own surprise that it was necessary to train the clients to handle the pup, much as it had been necessary to train the pup to please the clients and himself.
Unassertive, depressive clients were told to speak brightly, with enthusiasm in their voice to get the pup to attend to them. Harsh, angry clients were told to soften their voice to encourage the pup to want to hug them. Learning disabled Adolescents and children were taught to pay attention to the directions closely, or the pup would not learn from them. Anxious, introverted clients were taughtto pat the couch loudly to reach out to the pup and have him respond.
And so it continues. Client after client learns to give Whitby “Cuddles” on command. And client after client learns to practice the very behaviors that can help him or to be more satisfied with their lives.
And Whitby? He is going on, at nearly a year, to learn “My Lap” and “Rollover” and “Get it” and “Stay” and all the manners that help him to become the good canine citizen that is needed to excel in his lifelong career. And, does he love it? If the tail is any indication, it is now high and proud, and cut in the classic Portuguese water Dog fashion. And he waves it with verve, and the same bubbly spirit that is his birthright.
Who says learning can’t be fun?
Judith Coché, Ph.D.