Just like people, dogs come in a full range of sizes, temperaments, and skill sets. Some earn their keep through hard work or resourcefulness and many are out-and-out heroes (see pages 6 and 7 to read how service and search and rescue dogs are making human lives better). And some canine characters luck into the good life just by being so darn cute.
Then there are those dogs with a certain je ne sais quoi, that combination of natural charm, unflappable poise, and gentle companionship that perfectly fits the ambassador dog job description.
Ambassadors, whether human or canine, know how to make themselves welcome most everywhere they go, and their calming skills are especially valuable when times are tense. Sad to say, there are certain types of dogs that seem to trigger tension, and for them breed-ambassador education programs are particularly important.
Loyal readers of Bay Woof will be familiar with the remarkable work done by two Bay Area American Pit Bull Terrier ambassador organizations: Oakland’s BAD RAP (Bay Area Dog-Lovers Responsible About Pit Bulls) and For Pits’ Sake, based in Los Gatos. You may remember BAD RAP as one of the groups that took in dogs rescued from NFL quarterback Michael Vick’s dog-fighting enterprise in 2007. Hector, one of several Vick dogs rehabilitated by BAD RAP, is a stellar example of what it means to be a breed ambassador.
Following his adoption in 2008 and some specialized training, Hector jumped paws-first into his new diplomatic career, touring hospitals, classrooms, and newsrooms across the country, displaying the scars that have marred his tan fur but not his sweet disposition and huge heart.
In 2010, Hector received a Community Service in Humane Education Award from the Brooklyn Law School Student Animal Legal Defense Fund. He even has his own website where his micro-bio reads “The Only Thing I Fight is Discrimination.”
Hector now lives in Rochester, New York, with his adoptive humans (Roo and Clara Yuri) and five other dogs, including another Pit Bull, Wallace. As a national K9 flying disc champion, Wallace serves as a breed ambassador in his own right.
Three other former Vick dogs have become Certified Therapy Dogs. Notes Jim Gorant, senior writer for Sports Illustrated and author of The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick’s Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption, “As odd as it may seem, Michael Vick may be the best thing that ever happened to the Pit Bull. He gave the forum to discuss this and make it possible to get the message out there that these dogs are not what they’ve been made out to be in the headlines.”
Pit Bulls may be the breed most in need of a good PR campaign, but many other dog breeds also face prejudice. While Pit Bull aficionados have organized formal breed ambassador programs, fans of other breeds often considered “dangerous” can find support through web forums and breed rescue groups. Germanshepherds.com and rottweiler.net are just two of countless breed-specific sites that give users a chance to post inspiring stories about their own informal breed ambassadors.
Even Sigmund Freud, the “father of psychoanalysis,” kept a breed ambassador of sorts. A Chow Chow often was present during Freud’s therapy sessions. Although Chows stereotypically are maligned as unpredictable, Freud noticed that the dog’s presence calmed his patients, facilitating the therapeutic process. In particular, children and adolescents seemed more comfortable disclosing painful information when the dog was nearby. Freud even relied on one particular Chow, Jofi, for clues about the emotional state of patients.
Freud surmised that the unconditional regard of a dog – breed aside – was healing. No doubt everyone who met Freud’s Chows went away feeling a little better about the breed. No matter their genetic resumé, we all have the opportunity to work with our own dogs so that each one demonstrates in every encounter how much canines contribute to our daily lives.