Shine Pets interviews David Frei: "We watch out for each other"

Frei (R) with new breed the Norwegian Lundehund and owner Harvey Sanderson, November 2011David Frei is "the Voice of Westminster," not to mention the co-host of the National Dog Show Presented by Purina (you can watch this year's telecast on NBC on Thanksgiving Day). He's shown champion Afghan Hounds, he's appeared on "Sex & the City," and he's written books about his work with dogs, including "Angel By My Side," the critically-acclaimed story of a heroic service dog.

Frei's latest book, "Angel on a Leash," takes readers behind the scenes in Frei's work with therapy dogs – and more. Frei took some time to chat with me about show judges, Brittanys, tongue-twisters, and staying "in the moment." The first part of our conversation is right here; the second part appears below. 

You mention in the book that you think that good therapy dogs are born and not made, and that they can be any breed or a mixed breed, although some breeds are inherently better at it than others.

Yes.

Would you say that Brittanys, for example, or any other breeds in particular, are more…not "prone," but better by nature at being therapy dogs?

Yeah, I think there are some breeds – and again, it doesn't have to be a purebred dog, because it's personality and temperament, but Brittanys are good at it because they love people. But you have to be careful with them because they are an active dog. And you have to worry about them knocking little children over, because of their exuberance. That can be said for a lot of other dogs too, like Labs and Goldens. But when they have some basic training, their personalities and temperaments lend them to be positive about people.

There's a lot of dogs that were bred to be wary of strangers, and they're not supposed to be "hug me, let me lick your face" sort of dogs – so that doesn't eliminate them as therapy dogs, but they don't have the same kind of interaction that dogs like Cavaliers or Goldens or Labs or any of a number of other breeds, that it's just their first nature is to be interacting with people.

So a Doberman, for example -- I don't know if this is a breed you're talking about -- but a Doberman COULD be a therapy dog with the right training, but –

Absolutely! Oh, yeah.

But isn't necessarily bred for that kind of interaction.

That's right, but the Doberman, or any other breed that may not necessarily be that way, Dobermans that are properly socialized and trained from the time they're puppies are great around people. It's just that sometimes we can find a different job for a dog that -- maybe they don't like a bunch of screaming and poking and prodding, body-slamming children running around.

Right.

Maybe they'd be great with seniors. Or maybe they're the right dog for a veteran. You know, a guy, some guy who's sittin' in a VA hospital can relate better to a German Shepherd or a Doberman or some – I hate to differentiate this way, but some quote "masculine" sort of dog.

Right.

You know, a macho kind of dog. …That's unfair, because I never had a little dog before I got my Cavalier, but she's the greatest dog there is, in terms of people and loyalty and being fun and always being ready to go.

That's another breed I love. They're adorable.

Angel has been great, and Grace, my Brittany puppy – I think because she was sick as a puppy, and almost died, and because she's growing up in a one-bedroom apartment in a high-rise building in Manhattan, with a Toy dog, she is not quite so crazed as my other Brittanys were when they were the same age. They were – you couldn't do anything with them. But Grace I think has grown up to be sweet and docile and engaging, all the time. I always talk about, the great therapy dogs know, seem to have this understanding, that it's not about them. There are dogs that can be great therapy dogs, and are very good therapy dogs, but still it's a little bit about, they put on the look that it's about them. It's, "Okay, you can pat me now."

Right.

The best working therapy dog I ever saw was James, the Springer Spaniel who was Best in Show at Westminster in 2007, but he was always engaging with people, he was always looking people in the eye. The dogs have to be engaging with the people and not always looking to their handler for direction in what to do next. So I think that's the challenge; we want the dogs to interact with the people.

You make a number of references in the book to moments where [Frei's first therapy dogs, the late great Brittanys] Belle and Teigh seem to be able to sense what was required of them or what the situation needed, and adapt to it.

They were pretty good at what they did, and they seemed to always be able to pick out, for example, the neediest person in the room. They would always understand, [when] we'd walk into a room, who was the person they were brought in to see – not just because they were maybe lying in a bed, but just because they'd look around the room and they'd see somebody that has that look about them, and I think a lot of dogs, and a lot of good therapy dogs, have that inherent sense about it.

I was going to ask if that was a result of experience, or if this was something that's innate to the good therapy dogs.

I think experience is a lot of it, but I also think some of it is innate, and I think that – I think about when I come home and I've had a bad day. They hang around with me and they're not quite so exuberant, saying, "Let's throw the ball, let's do something, let's do something." Rather than that, they'll come over and put their head in my lap, or come up and cuddle and things like that – but if it's a normal day, they'll meet me there, and of course every day greeting me at the door with the tails wagging: "What are we gonna do, let's go, we've been sitting inside all day, let's get outside, here's my ball, here's my hedgehog, let's do something." And that changes the moment, it really does.

I have cats, and they can tell. Heartbreak, or I have a cold, or things aren't going well, they can sort of tell that now's a good time to make a perfect circle on my lap.

Cats are pretty good at that.

Be a little more doglike, actually.

Yeah.

Speaking of experience – I know that this kind of work can be extremely rewarding, but it can also be really tough. Can you talk a little bit about how you avoid burnout? And do you feel like the dogs get worn down by it at all? It's a lot of emotions happening.

Yes, you have to be very careful about it. Let's start with the dog: my own personal rule is that I limit the dog to an hour. If you remember the chapter I wrote about our very first visit to Sloan-Kettering, when we came out of the room after quite an experience, that I said to the social worker who was creating the program, "All the visits can't be this intense. Because I can't push the dog through more than one of these a night." And even for myself it's that way too, but the key, really, is to making sure you limit your dog to doing what they can do, and how they can do it. If it means I'm limiting them to an hour and the first patient is a half-hour, then I've got thirty minutes left to see how ever many more I can see, depending on what the next one is.

But it also means that, overall, I've gotta be watching the dog at all times, and if at the fortieth minute I see she's starting to fade on me, she's runnin' out of gas, we're going to go home then, and we're gonna miss the last couple of visits, perhaps, but I have to make sure that the dog is going to be ready for the next week, or two days later when we go somewhere else, so that's important.

But I also think the key is – part of this is the confidentiality rules, you're not really allowed to go in there and say, "What are you in here for?", "How are you doin'?", "What's your prognosis?", that kind of stuff. You're visiting with the dog, you're visiting in the moment, and you can't think about…what happened before, or what's goin' on tomorrow, or what's going on with these children with cancer especially. And when we visit a child with cancer, and I can tell because we see at the Ronald McDonald House, these kids are there for quite some length of time, many of them. So I've been seeing them over the course of weeks or months or some of 'em even years, and I know when they're having a good day and I know when they're having a bad day, and I know when a kid's comin' down that final road, and I just, I can't do anything other than make the visit be in the moment. I gotta do that for the child, I gotta do that for the dog, and I've gotta do that for myself. But I have visited a child on a Tuesday, and come to their memorial service on a Friday.

Yes.

So that is tough.

Sure.

I can't -- I have to block that out and I have to say, "Now, today I'm here for Laura. And if Laura doesn't make it…God bless her. We love her, and we'll miss her, and grieve – but I can't let that affect my next visit."

Right. So you're just trying to keep it in the present, in order to not be taking on too much weight.

Yeah. And there are populations, like with seniors, for example, then it is moment-by-moment. Occasionally we see patients afflicted with dementia, that are fighting the early stages of Alzheimer's, that having the dog there suddenly gives them a lucid moment they haven't had for a while; they start talking about their own dogs. You know, where the administrator might be watching over you or the social worker says, "We never knew that, we never heard those things from him before." I visited a guy – I think I wrote about this – that the administrator, this was early in my visiting, the administrator as he's taking me back said, "Don't expect too much out of this guy, he hates everybody, he's mad that he's here, he's angry at his family for dumpin' him in here, waitin' for him to die, and doesn't smile, doesn't talk to anybody," and when I walked in, he just lit up. And so that's what I've got. I've gotta visit in the moment; I've gotta do that for my dog, I've gotta do that for the patient, I've gotta do it for myself. My job is to protect my dog; to create these moments for the people that we visit; and to make sure that I'm staying in shape to make the next visit with the dog.

So presumably sometimes you have these wonderful visits that are affirming, and that gives you some more gas for the ones that are more difficult.

That's right! That's right. Most of the visits will energize me for the next visit. But a lot of them will just, you'll say, "Okay. I've gotta go now. We're going home now. Because we've given all that we can." Because the dog takes its cues from me; if I'm sad, if somebody really gets to me, now suddenly my dog is concerned more about me than they are the person that they're visiting, and that's not fair to the people that we visit. I want the dog to be tuned in to the people that we visit.

But on the other hand, it's a good partner system.

Well, yes, we watch out for each other.

If one of you is getting burned out, the other one can say, "Hey, let's move on and –"

I think that's the thing that a lot of people don't realize, is therapy dogs is about a partnership, it's about a partnership between me and my dog, that I’m watching out for her and she's watching out for me, and I'm protecting her, I'm keeping her out of trouble, protecting the people that we visit, but my main job in the therapy-dog world is to protect my own dog. I can't put them into a situation that will jeopardize their health. I can't put them into a situation where they could get in trouble by stepping in the middle of somebody's sutures, get tangled up in an IV cord or something like that; I want to make sure that everything is smooth from an operational standpoint. And then I'll let them look in the patient's eyes, or give the patient a little kiss, or let them let the patient hug and pet them or scratch their tummy, whatever. And it just creates those magical moments, but you've gotta be on the alert at every moment.

One more question and then I'll let you go about your day. Because of your multifaceted involvement with dogs, with the shows and with the therapy dogs and everything, and you're a very visible -- the MOST visible person probably, in the dog world, do you ever get burned out on being The Dog Guy?

[laughter]

Do you ever wish strangers would just ask you about a movie instead of running up to you all "don't you think my Boxer could be in the show," or do you take energy from those interactions still?

It's not so overwhelming. I mean, I do get a number of people who may recognize me, or maybe after we've stopped and talked for a little bit they'll say, "You're the Dog Guy, I recognize your voice," or "I've seen you on TV, haven't I," or something like that. There are a couple of things going on: first of all, I really did not have dogs as a child, so the first twenty years of my life, I've sort of been able to rest up and get ready for this public persona with dogs.

But the second thing is that my dogs have done so very much for me that I love being able to be out and about with my dogs, because of my dogs. I wrote about it, that jeez, I might not know anybody on the streets of New York if I didn't have dogs – because people will recognize the dogs, they'll come in all, "Angel, Angel, how ya doin'," and they look up at me and they don't remember my name.

I always think that's so funny. "Angel's dad!"

I'm Angel's dad! That's absolutely right, or Grace's dad. When people want to talk about dogs, that's energizing, because I love talking about dogs, and I love advocating for dogs and the great things that they do for us, whether it's therapy-dog work, or as service dogs or just generally being there in our lives for us, I love sharing that with people. And I think we still have some challenges in the dog world, with unreasonable legislation, and things that are going on, I want to make sure that the rights of people to own dogs and have dogs in their lives are protected, so I hope that part of what I do will help advocate for those things.

Can you give me a quick example of the legislation you're talking about?

Well, it's…I think sometimes the people who are advocating for animal welfare laws, which we are all in favor of animal welfare, of course, but they propose laws that affect people who are helping bring healthy, happy dogs into the world and to find them great homes. Sometimes those laws affect these people adversely, whether it's registrations or inspections or licensing fees that make it difficult -- what happens is we make it so difficult on the legitimate, responsible purebred-dog breeder, that people who want a dog for their family, purebred or otherwise, they end up turning to places to get these dogs that reinforce the puppy mills and the pet stores and things like that.

Right – so it's not distinguishing –

Yeah. In my perfect world, in my perfect world everybody would get their dog from a responsible breeder. That means that, whether it's a purebred dog or not, admittedly there are some people that are breeding dogs that are not purebred dogs that maybe have the same sort of integrity as purebred, responsible purebred-dog breeders do – but you would get a dog from a responsible breeder so that you know, A, all the health research has been done, and inspection and checks before breeding, that you're getting a healthy, happy dog. And secondly, if the dog doesn't work out, or if there's a challenge for the dog later, that I know that I can go back to that breeder and say help me with this, and that breeder will be there – or, at the other end of it, if suddenly I can't keep the dog anymore. If maybe there's a divorce or a death in the family, or I’m being drafted into the military, whatever, and I've gotta find a home for the dog, that that breeder will be there to help me with that.

So those are the things that I worry about, I worry about the legislative mentality that says, "We don't want anybody breeding dogs." Well, you know what, I want a Cavalier. I love the dog; I love the mentality; I love my Brittanys for what they do. There are people that want to have a dog with them that can run four miles with them every day, [or] they want to have a dog that will sit quietly and watch television with them at night, maybe they're not worried about getting out. If we just end up with one homogenous breed of dog, you're gonna lose those things, you're gonna lose the things like the trainability and the serviceability of a search-and-detection dog, search-and-rescue dogs, or explosive-detection dogs, or seizure-alert dogs, or guide dogs for the blind and things like that, that the purebred-dog community needs to be able to function and thrive, to continue to provide the kinds of dogs that people want and need that are proper for their lifestyle.

So the legislation just needs to be a little more…

The problem is…

Common-sense?

Well, I think they need to engage the purebred-dog community in some of these legislative things that come across their desks, if they're a legislator, that yes, these things all sound good on paper but here's the unintended consequences.

Uh huh.

In particular to purebred-dog breeders, but ultimately to people who want to have the right dog to match their lifestyle, and to be in their homes with them for the rest of their lives.

Catch David Frei co-hosting the National Dog Show Presented by Purina alongside John O'Hurley, this Thanksgiving on NBC -- and keep it right here on Shine Pets for more dog-show information, trivia, and behind-the-scenes info all week long!