We’ve come a long way from the days when dogs lived unsupervised, carefree days roaming in packs. Today’s canines have play dates, professional walkers, well-balanced catered meals, and outfits for any occasion. Simply put, the expression “every dog has its day” would seem to apply to just about every dog, every day these days. But it’s not all fun and games. Turns out that dogs need to be engaged in something other than napping. They need a mission. That’s where the Dog Scouts of America, or DSA, comes in. Started in Michigan 25 years ago, dogs and their owners who join DSA earn merit badges for learning new tricks involving such matters as disaster preparedness, travel safety, and retrieving. DSA also provides tips on dog training and obedience. And, once a badge is earned, it’s sewn on to a quite spiffy DSA dog vest. To get the straight poop on DSA, I collared the organization’s East Bay chapter troop leader Ruth Robinson. She did not disappoint.
Bay Woof: Is it DSA’s goal to become as well known as the Boy or Girl Scouts?
Ruth Robinson: People learn about us in a variety of ways. Usually it’s at some community event where one of our troops has a booth up. What is hilarious, Paul, is we’ve done the El Cerrito / worldOne festival on the 4th of July the last two years. Thousands of people come by. It is hilarious to see people walk by our booth with a big sign that says, “Dog Scouts of America.” You see somebody’s head glance. They walk three steps forward, and they do a head snap, because they thought they read “Boy Scouts.” Then you see they went, “That didn’t say boy.” Their brain kicks in. They walk over and they say, “Who are you people?”
BW: There is this sense that dogs need to have a purpose. They need to be doing something. Is that part of this? I mean, let’s face it; there’s not the Cat Scouts of America.
RR: Yeah, there’s a good reason for that. It’s a huge part and the connection is because dogs that aren’t seen as fitting into a human life and having a purpose will often be discarded. They’ll be returned or sent to a shelter as an out-of-control dog. “My dog just chews up the couch. I can’t control my dog.” Your dog is bored.
BW: I had a dog growing up and it was a different time. We didn’t know the first thing about training him.
RR: Exactly. We didn’t either. There is so much known now about the cognitive abilities and needs of dogs. I’ll bet you’ve never heard of this either, and it’s in Rohnert Park: Bergin University. Ever hear of it?
RR: Right. This is an internationally recognized and accredited university started by Bonnie Bergin who in the 1970s invented service dogs.
RR: This is the only school in the world, or I think in the world, that certifies and in-depth studies K9 human interaction. There are people internationally who are leaving that school with their degrees and going to their countries or some place in the United States and training service dogs.
BW: Does DSA work with the university as far as the training?
RR: No. We are not a training club. That’s not the purpose. We do training. Every meeting, we have something about training, but it’s a distinction that’s very important, because we’re not trying to take over from serious training or any of these other groups. That’s not us.
BW: I’m looking at the merit badges DSA offers. There’s one for reading?
RR: The read to a dog program. We have a huge, huge presence in that. However, the dog has to be certified as a therapy dog through an official therapy dog organization. If you’re ever in El Cerrito, Monday night at six, go to the library. Your mind will be blown. We have five dogs every Monday from 6 to 7 at the library, and I cannot tell you how many kids and parents come in. Here’s the deal, and this is so true for English learners, and we have a lot of kids who weren’t born in this country who show up. If you’re born someplace else and you’re struggling learning English and you’re in a mainstream classroom, your teacher doesn’t take the time. The class moves right ahead. The poor kid is left behind. But if you go in and read out loud to a dog, the dog is not going to be judgmental. That’s the critical piece. The dog doesn’t judge the skill level, but the kid gets to practice.
BW: OK, so the dog can’t be sitting there and then fall asleep though, right?
RR: Well, it’s OK if they fall asleep. They just can’t bite or pee on the book.
BW: Another badge that caught my eye is the clean-up one — dogs pick up cans and bottles and put them in bags?
RR: No. We’re not that good. What we do is for El Cerrito Earth Day, we go out under the BART tracks with our dogs. We carry a portable wagon. If the dog can pick up a can, how nice. But the dogs go with us, and they’re ambassadors of good behavior while we are picking up the recyclable materials.
BW: Is it ever better just to leave dogs home? Like when Shopping at Tiffany’s?
RR: Hey, look, some people are buying collars for their dog there. I think there are times to leave your dog at home for the safety and comfort of the dog and other shoppers.
BW: What about at Chez Panisse?
RR: I don’t think so. That’s kind of tight seating anyway. I think indoor restaurants are probably not going to be the appropriate place to take dogs. We’re not there yet.
BW: We’re not France.
RR: Or Germany.
BW: There’s a merit badge for teaching dogs how to paint? ?
RR: It sounds silly.
BW: Yes, it does.
RR: However, the embedded skill is better obedience. Teaching your dog to touch. When to lift a paw and when not to. That’s the embedded skill. This may sound ridiculous, but being able to handle your dog’s feet is very important so you can trim nails, check for little stones or injuries. Besides that, it’s just fun. You’re gonna think I’m nuts now. I probably won’t tell you this then.
BW: No, go ahead.
RR: Got your curiosity, didn’t I?
BW: You did.
RR: OK, one of the things we have learned that Bergin University is doing is they’re teaching their dogs to read. They’re not going to read novels or join book clubs, but it has a wonderful application for service dogs. Think about this, Paul. If you’re in a wheelchair and you’re in a public setting and you have fairly limited mobility you can tell your dog to find the restroom, and if your dog has learned to read the symbol or the words for the appropriate restroom, your dog will take you there. If your dog has learned the word “exit” and you need to get out, the dog can learn to find that word and take you there. Isn’t that good?
The East Bay’s DSA chapter will manning and “dogging” an info booth at El Cerrito/worldOne 4th of July Festival. Paul Kilduff lives in San Francisco.
About Ruth Robinson
Age: “You may say this [DSA] was my retirement project.”
Birthplace: “A village in Ohio no one’s ever heard of.”
Astrological sign: Sagittarius
Motto: “When in doubt, do the kindest thing.”
Book on nightstand: Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Main article photo by: Michael Robinson