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Buster Brown - A Bearded Collie Helps With Alzheimer's

This article by Howard Rubin appeared in the 2023 edition of Beardie Tails ...

My wife (Suze), my son (Josh), and I always have had Bearded Collies in our lives – perhaps “in our family” is a better description. We have had other breeds (Newfie, Standard Poodle, Great Dane) and many other animals – Suze is a veterinary technician – cats, horses, hamsters, rabbits, fish, and more – but Beardies have been the dearest to us for 50+ years of marriage.

It started with Josie and then a brother and sister, Hansel and Gretel. These three were prototypical and perfectly fit the descriptions in the breed literature - known for being quick-witted and lively. They are smart, active and can be stubborn or independent. Though Hansel and Gretel may have slipped a bit in the quick-witted category. They lived with us for almost 13 years with our cat, Pawsi. Pawsi slept on the kitchen counter while the beardie “bunch” usually slept in our bedroom. However, every morning upon awakening Pawsi would jump from her countertop to the floor with a “thunk”. Hansel and Gretel would immediately wake up and run downstairs and a chase would ensue. It seemed that each day when this circus started they would say to each other, “The Rubin’s must have bought a cat while we were asleep and we must chase it”. Though after about 5 minutes they realized that she was our house cat and there was no reason to pursue her. However, this was the daily routine for their entire lives. They also had another such quirk. They loved ice cream. In fact, they loved it so much that upon giving them a scoop in a dish, they quickly extracted it and buried it to save it. They would return days later to the burial site and it was there no longer – very sad. But they tried time after time! Buster Brown was totally different.

In the Fall of 2017, Suze said it was time for another Beardie. As it turned out, in the US there was only one litter we could find. And that was in Herrington, Kansas which was about 2/3’s of the way across the country from our home at that time in Florida. (We had moved from a small town north of New York City where we had lived for 40 years to finally avoid the cold Northeast US. It turns out that we returned Northeast , 7 years later as Florida was not to our liking or Buster’s who was not a fan of the endless headt.

So, across the country we flew on December 20, 2017 into -7 degrees Fahrenheit of cold to get a puppy.

The litter was a glorious sight. Bouncing Beardies having fun were just wonderful to see. And one chocolate brown one (they called him “Brownie”) stood out. And unlike our past choices, this bruiser of a Beardie was perhaps the “unrunt” of the litter. In the past we always went for the smallest ones. Today, by the way, he stands more than 24 inches to his should and weighs 100 lbs. His vet says he is built like an athlete!

Buster the Puppy (2017) and Today (2023)
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We packed him up and tentatively named him Toto, of Wizard of Oz fame as he “Wasn’t in Kansas Anymore”. But he was no Toto. He was a Buster. Actually, Buster Brown!

He was fluffy, fun, bouncy, loaded with energy, and ready for some additional training beyond what he had learned at the breeder.

So, we engaged Michael Smith of peacefuldogtraining to assist us with basic commands and citizenship. And that is when we noticed a difference in Buster as did Michael.

Buster thrived on training! Michael’s one or two sessions were the highlight of Buster’s week. He learned everything instantly and loved puzzles and problem solving the most as his reward for picking up various commands. Suze spent hours with Buster reinforcing the training and went on long walks which he loved covering 5 to 8 miles a day. In our neighborhood, Buster acted like he was either Mayor or running for office. He stopped to greet and sniff every dog and person on the street and went for quantity and not quality – he focused on seeing as many dogs and people as possible instead of spending time with each one. If he could figure out how to shake hands (or shake paws) and ask for their vote, I am sure he would have.

Soon, Michael was coming to work with Buster 3 to 5 times and week. And then, we all realized more about Buster and his potential.

For example, one day Michael said he could teach Buster to respond to commands on “flash cards” with words and some symbols – SIT, STAY, TOUCH, COME, etc. Buster grasped that in less than 5 minutes (see accompanying video). By the way he also learned to touch colored buttons (with sound) for his choice food (chicken, turkey, venison) just as quickly.

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Click on link for video. Opens in new tab.

Buster Brown and Trainer Michael Smith - Using Flash Card Commands

Now the story really begins,

Michael also had another client [I will refer to him as “D”] who loved his own dogs dearly but had developed Alzheimer’s and was now in a memory care center nearby. Michael and Suze (in addition to being a veterinary technician she was a trained EMT) felt intuitively that Buster would be a superb therapy dog in that environment. It was time for a new phase in Buster’s training.

Buster needed to feel comfortable and focused in the hallways, stairs, elevators, and smallish rooms in the memory care facility. He also needed to be able to navigate around medical equipment such as IV poles and patient walkers and wheelchairs. In addition, he needed to be able to remain undistracted by any behavior patterns he was not used to and also stay calm with the occasional clatter of food trays and carts and other such things in the facility. Plus Buster needed to learn ways to interact with D – such as putting his head in his lap, being on leash with D in his wheelchair, even getting into bed with D to encourage him to walk. Michael also taught Buster skills typically used by a service dog – how to open doors, cabinets, to find objects, and even how to assist someone who has fallen to get pulled up!

So, before even meeting D for the first time at the facility, Michael with Suze engaged Buster in a unique training program.

Buster learned to walk through cramped spaces at the culinary store Sur La Table. He went up and down the aisles filled with glassware and fine-dinnerware and kept his waggy tail and snoopy snout and floppy ears out of any danger/damage zone.

The staff at the nearby department store - Lord & Taylor - happily let him roam their aisles, ride the elevator, and mingle among the shoppers. This all soon became part of the landscape for Buster.

Buster, Suze, and Michael at Sur La Table and Lord & Taylor
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To deal with clatter, the big box home Improvement store, The Hope Depot, gave Buster the chance to be among forklifts, paint mixers, and all sorts of noisemakers. And even more extraordinary, because of my involvement in private aviation, Buster got “clearance” to walk with Michael across the ramp area of an airport to get exposed to other sorts of load noises (at a safe distance of course).

Buster and Michael at Boca Raton Airport
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After a few weeks of such an experience, Buster was ready to visit D for the first time.

Buster went in with the 3 of us and seemed to know instantly that “duty” called.

He entered us, went up the elevator, and sat at attention (his choice) until D’s caregiver came to get us.

We all proceeded to D’s room after passing by other public rooms, public rooms,and nurse,s stations. Buster remained unflappable and relaxed.

Buster, Suze, Michael, and “D”: First Visit
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Buster, Suze, Michael and “D”
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As Buster became more familiar with the memory care center and they became more familiar with him, it was “party time” – Buster became a regular guest at group gatherings and birthdays for the residents.

Buster at an 80th Birthday Party
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“D”, by the way, did not often communicate with those around him. But he called Buster “Fuzzy Monster” and Buster’s presence motivated “D” to get out of bed and go for walks around the property.
He also walked daily with another victim of Alzheimer’s in our neighborhood. “M” loved to be with Buster as they walked side by side nightly and Buster would sometimes go ahead and look backward to make sure M was in the “herd”

Unfortunately, once the COVID-19 pandemic started, visitation possibilities were over. And we moved from Florida back to the small town north of New York City where we had lived for many years before “abandoning” the cold Northeast.

The new home is fittingly called “Buster’s Retreat” and he has his own banner at the entrance.

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He loves being away from the Florida heat and now has acres of land to roam and play with his favorite toy – “Jolly Ball”.

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He still maintains the skills he learned but uses them in a different way. He is very social (although he defends our home with the vigor of what is called a “junkyard dog”. But in the doggie day care facility he loves to go to every morning for a few hours to be with his friends, he is always used to calm and bring comfort to any new attendees that are concerned or frightened. Plus, at his 100 lbs., he herds the smaller dogs and smothers them with kisses and sniffs. In addition, he somehow has developed a sense for identifying people that may have dementia or Alzheimer’s or other such maladies. When he does, his past training comes alive. He puts his head in their lap (he doesn’t even do this with us) and he allows himself to be petted and does his best to engage them with his toys and tries to draw them out.

But, he absolutely loves his life now at Buster’s Retreat with his morning playgroup, his daily walks, and even visits to various “Dog Day” fairs in the area.

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He is almost 6 now and one might say he is a “lucky dog”, But Suze, Josh, and I, know we are truly the lucky ones.

Howard Rubin
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