Meet Buster! Buster is a poodle who lives in Arizona with his mom, Bette, and will be turning 5 years old this August. He may be young but he has done a lot of good for the people around him in his short time. Buster is a therapy dog and works with those in need all the way from the elderly in nursing homes to 1st graders in elementary schools. He loves making people smile and teaching children important lessons, and it’s clear he was meant for this career!
Buster came to his family as a puppy. Originally brought home by his momma as a companion for her sick husband, Bette was the one who really ended up bonding with the little guy. Buster has been a tremendous comfort to her ever since losing her husband to ALS 3 years ago. This is where Buster really got his start in his therapy dog career.
When he is on his own at home relaxing, Buster is quite the hyper energetic dog. Bette was concerned she wouldn’t be able to give him enough exercise when she learned he loved to swim! Buster loves the water and he’ll regularly swim a couple of miles at a time in their pool at home. He even enjoys a good walk on the treadmill when it’s too hot outside for both mom and pup.
So how can this dog be a good therapy animal, you might wonder? Bette recalls bringing him with her to visit her elderly mother in an assisted living facility. He just walked right up to the residents like he owned the place and let them pet him. He was calm and mellow, friendly to everyone. “He knows when to work and when to have fun” Bette describes.
Since Bette realized how in-tune Buster is to his surroundings, and his ability to recognize what the people around him need, they have become quite the therapy duo. They are part of an organization called Gabriel’s Angels, devoted to “delivering healing pet therapy to at-risk children, nurturing their emotional development and enhancing the quality of their lives forever”. During the school year they visit a special needs classroom for an hour every other week. They bring a whole suitcase of props to teach animal assisted activities “which are goal-related to improve the quality of the child’s life through the use of the human-animal bond”. Buster helps the children learn to respect animals and all breeds of dogs, as well as lessons on hygiene. For example, the kids can help brush Buster’s fur and teeth or explore using a stethoscope. Buster and Bette also visit assisted living facilities and, since school is out for the summer, they will be adding a nursing home and rehab center to their visit schedule once a week. Buster has even presented at a convention for Drowning Prevention.
Buster went through rigorous training to become the therapy dog he is now. The program started with 8 months of training and ended with 3 tests to complete certification. His tests were done at a hospital, visiting patients who wanted to spend some time with a dog. It was hard on both Bette and Buster because of extra careful washing in order not to spread germs. The noises from walkers and wheelchairs were most challenging for Buster so they have since decided on sticking to nursing homes and schools for their visits.
One of Buster’s favorite work moments is when the children get to choose a trick for him to do. Bette put a set of cards together of all the tricks Buster knows how to do and the children get to choose. He can “zig zag” between their legs or turn around in circles. He does the “chacha” by standing on his hind legs and walking backwards. He begs and shakes hands and sits, sticks his tongue out for kisses, prays for people and meals, and he’ll also retrieve a ball or washcloth from the bottom of the pool and save a babydoll from drowning. (Among others!)
This last trick was what brought him to the Drowning Prevention convention. Buster performed his washcloth trick and “saving the baby” for the entire convention. Bette taught swimming for 55 years after training for the olympic games in diving in 1960 and 1964, so it was clearly meant to be since Buster loves to swim so much. Bette took the time to teach Buster all of his water skills and he took to them naturally. She uses videos of Buster’s training to retrieve a washcloth as a lesson for the children in the elementary schools. Bette teaches the children that even though it was tough for Buster he kept trying and was eventually able to succeed in diving for the washcloth and bring it back. The kids love watching the videos!
This is where Bette got the idea to include a lesson on safeguarding pets from drowning. Since Bette and Buster live in Arizona every other household has a pool in the back yard and people’s pets drown often if they are left unattended or not properly taught how to be in the water safely. They taught this lesson to one of their special needs classes and Bette says, “You could have heard a pin drop.”
Buster also loves to visit his “cousins”. Bette’s daughter has two german shepherds who Buster met as puppies and they have played together happily ever since. Buster visits them weekly. Bette really understands the importance of Buster having a social life and not just being left at home, so Buster also spends 2 days a week in a dog facility where he gets to play with dogs he’s known since he was half a year old. Bette loves having the Petzi Treat Cam for the days he is at home alone. She checks in on him, feeds him treats, and they’ll even do some tricks together.
Growing up, Bette had many animals; two cats, a dog, a bird and fish, and other dogs since childhood so she knew that Buster was pretty special when he came into her life. “He’s such a kind hearted dog…I don’t want to waste his being able to make people happy and smile. He’s a good one.”
By Roneet Rahamim