The Daily Spike: Does lying down make a dog loyal?

I probably tell Spike he’s a "good boy" about 100 times a day. When he successfully does one of his commands, when he walks right by my side on a loose leash, etc., he usually earns himself a ‘Good boy!’

Does he understand what the words "good boy" mean? Well, he knows it’s a sign of my approval, and dogs love approval. You can tell because his tail wags a mile a minute, and he stares into my eyes as if to say, “What do you need me to do now?”

One command we work on a lot is "down," meaning Spike needs to lie down. It’s a simple enough command, but it can be difficult for the dog to maintain. It’s a vulnerable position, as they’d have to spring up in order to defend themselves. It takes great discipline for a dog — and a trainer — to maintain their "down," especially when surrounded by distractions.

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At Canine Companions for Independence, we teach the dogs to stay in a "down" for a variety of situations. The pets need to learn to lie down while their human companion is in a long meeting, or taking night classes, or eating at a restaurant. Their human partner may need to fly across the country, and the dog may need to lie down for three to six hours, ready to work at a moments’ notice, and not whine or decide to bolt down the plane aisle. Or a dog may need to stay in a "down" next to their partner when they’re talking to their doctor about a difficult medical issue.

This is their "work." Do they like to work? Yes! Most dogs truly want nothing more than a pat on the head, or some sort of sign of approval from their owner or anyone who is working with them, if only to know when they do something right, regardless of how long they’ve worked together with their partners.

A photo of Bush’s service dog Sully lying down next to his casket struck a chord on social media earlier this week, resulting in an outpouring of emotional reactions across the spectrum. A recent Slate op-ed about him, however, took a contrarian view, questioning the level of attachment possible between Sully and the president given their limited time together (roughly six months).

The author equated their relationship to more employer/employee, with Sully performing tasks such as opening doors and picking up things, something far short of true companionship.  The article mocked those ‘demented’ enough to project grief onto the dog, and chided those that would consider Sully a hero, when all he did was do what he was trained to do.

I, on the other hand, am positive Sully was a good boy, and loyal, and liked working for President Bush and provided some comfort and joy to the entire Bush family. All working dogs are heroes to some degree in my mind.

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A woman I know recently shared an incredible story about her Canine Companions for Independence service dog. She fell out of her wheelchair in a locked restaurant bathroom, and in the process, the chair went flying across the room — maybe seven feet. It was out of reach for her, and she couldn’t get up. No one else was around, and she had few options. Normally her dog would be able to bring her the chair by pulling on an attached rope, but the rope wasn’t attached.

She didn’t want to call 911 and have the police break down the door while she’s lying on the bathroom floor, at least not at first. That, she said, would have been embarrassing.

Instead, her dog went over to the chair and figured out what she needed. She encouraged him, lauding him as a "good boy" as he pulled on the metal frame of the wheelchair, dragging it seven feet in spite of the one of two wheels' brakes being activated. This woman was so grateful to have preserved her independence and dignity. Her dog was absolutely a hero.

Grief is an incredibly personal and subjective thing, and projecting these feelings onto a dog in a photo is far from demented, as the Slate article suggests. Having lost two brothers and my father before any of them got the chance to turn 46, I’ve had my share. I have also seen how others react to the loss of a loved one — or the loss of someone they never knew. Some people bury their grief so deep down, it ruins their lives. I never had the honor of meeting President George HW Bush, but I will admit to being sad and teary-eyed at several points during his services. He’s lived such a full life, and his dedication to service is beyond admirable, to say the least.

And I found the photo of Sully at the President’s casket to be… perfect.

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Does lying down make a dog loyal?  Not necessarily, although I bet he was. But if one photo can inspire so many to channel their thoughts, their grief, their enthusiasm in some form — even if its only Twitter or Instagram — I think that’s a good thing.

I now plan to spend the rest of this day watching my loyal dog lie down next to me. He’s a good boy. And while we’ve only been together eight months, he’s loyal to an incredible degree.

To find out more about Canine Companions for Independence, visit CCI.org.