"You don't want him," the young salesgirl told me, as she tried to direct me to away from the little spaniel to a cage filled with rambunctious, yapping puppies. "Look at these Yorkies, now there's a dog for you!" Our beloved Schnauzer had died months before, and to ease our mourning, my husband and I had taken to dropping by the local pet store occasionally to watch the frolicking litters and mingle with other animal lovers. "He's sick and sad; he doesn't act like the other dogs," the disappointed salesgirl added. After being shipped from Nebraska to California by himself, the little guy had become ill in transit, she told me. "We'll probably have to send him back, but I don't think he'll make it." I kept looking at a tri-colored Cavalier King Charles with the biggest, thoughtful eyes I'd ever seen. I didn't budge; "I'd like to hold him," I told her.

And in the five years that we've had him since, Wendel, as he came to be called, has barely left my arms. He lost his sickliness but kept his pensive nature while showing an extraordinary ability to connect with people. As a horse trick trainer for the last thirty years, I started using the same techniques to train Wendel. We progressed from basic commands like sit and stay to advanced lessons, while minimizing cues and eliminating voice prompts. My career as a psychiatric nurse prompted me to share Wendel's amazing personality with those less fortunate, and we began a program designed to qualify him for recognition as a therapy dog.

My system includes a combination of Shaping, clicker training and positive reinforcement. I've trained my horse Lukas, an ex-racer and former rescue, to be the World's Smartest Horse (according to the World Records Academy). Lukas has also earned approval through Guinness of a World Record (Most numbers identified by a horse in one minute: 19). I was certain that these techniques could also apply to Wendel as well. After careful investigation, I located a reputable, charitable group with a mission to promote companionship between pets and people.

After joining, I requested the Control Evaluation form to begin our test preparation. According to the instructions, an unbiased licensed and approved trainer or behaviorist would need to evaluate Wendel and provide written attestation of completion of all of the following steps:

• Is the pet able to do a sit, lie down, heel with people close by, come when called while on a leash and do a two-minute down or sit/stay with the owner holding the leash?
• Is the pet able to sit for petting and allow its head, ears, feet and tail to be touched?
• Is the pet clean and well groomed?
• Is mouthing, biting, dodging or aggression apparent?
• Is the pet under control with people around?
• Is the pet sound sensitive?
• Is the pet able to maintain composure when a stranger approaches in an erratic manner?
• Does the pet show signs of fear or shyness?
• Does the pet appear to have any training difficulties or behavior problems that might interfere with its ability to work as a therapy pet?
• Would you like this pet to visit you or a relative of yours?

Our evaluator arrived two months later with an assortment of props and even a big brown lab "to test Wendel's mettle." An unfamiliar location, a rattling wheelchair, a barking brown stranger and more were no match for Wendel; our test was over and he had passed with flying colors.

Wendel has since gone on to advanced degrees in Psychology and the Elderly, with over five-hundred hours of selfless service with some tricks thrown in for extra smiles.

Author's Bio: 

Copyright 2011 Karen Murdock is a retired psychiatric nurse, who has been fixing problem horses for over 30 years. Owner of PlayingWithLukas.com. She uses a combination of shaping techniques, a specialized version of clicker training and positive reinforcement. Her unique approach uses games and play as a way to connect and bond with horses to develop confidence, increase focus, improve performance as well as build willingness and trust. All of her services and proceeds go to benefit the horses.