Bentley the Dalmatian is a true performer and when he gets a chance to teach kids about fire safety, all eyes are on this spotted dog that takes the stage with enthusiasm and pizzazz.
A lot of that has to do with his owner, Betsy Tarkowski, who has completed a 50-hour course with Bentley through a program called Love on a Leash, a therapy dog training program taught by professional dog trainer Carol Lofquist. And that in itself is a feat for this solidly built canine, whose vigor is boundless. “These are very high-energy dogs,” said Carol. “They need a job.”
Today, Bentley has a couple of jobs. One is teaching kids how to “stop, drop and roll” if they ever catch on fire. Another one of his talents is demonstrating how to stay low to the floor when exiting a building that is burning. He does this by creeping along on his hind legs and elbows. These life-saving “tricks” were taught to him by students at Northwoods Community Secondary School (NCSS) through the after-school program called CHAMPS. “The kids worked with him for almost a year, teaching him these moves,” said Carol. “We wanted to train a dog to do this so local fire departments can take him to schools when they teach kids about fire safety.”
Bentley would never have had these opportunities if it wasn’t for the kindness of Betsy and her husband Doug. In fact, it was Doug who saw a program about Dalmatians and fell in love with the breed back in the early 1990s. The Tarkowskis adopted a couple of these dogs before Bentley came into their lives. He was a rescue from a family that was moving and couldn’t take him along. But that fact presented some problems right from the beginning. “Dalmatians really bond to their people and Bentley had trust issues when the Tarkowskis first got him,” said Carol. “It was evident he was going to need a lot of training and he had some big adjustments to overcome before he was going to be able to train for therapy work.”
Of course, Betsy thought Bentley was perfect in every way but she was willing to do whatever it took to make him a happy and contented companion. And so the two enrolled in an obedience class Carol was teaching. This is a good way for a dog and its owner to bond and Carol was right. It wasn’t long before Betsy and Bentley were a true team. “That’s pretty common in dogs that are adopted when they are adults,” said Carol. “It takes them a while to realize they have new owners and then to bond with them.”
Once Bentley passed his obedience class, it was time to find some activities this energetic canine would enjoy. Carol thought an excellent exercise for this pooch would be a game called fly ball. This high-action activity requires a dog to grab a ball that is flung from a stationary box and bring it back to the owner. “When we showed Bentley how it worked, he grabbed the ball and then plunked it down at my feet,” laughed Betsy. “He hated that game.”
Next, they tried Bentley on the agility equipment. “He didn’t particularly like that, either,” said Carol. “He was good at it and picked up weaving through poles and going through tunnels really well but he soon got bored with it. This is a working breed and I think he thought the whole agility thing was kind of pointless.”
That’s when Carol decided to contact NCSS and see if students would be willing to teach him the skills necessary to become an important tool in educating youngsters about fire safety. “The kids worked with Bentley for over a year teaching him the stop, drop and roll trick and how to creep on all fours,” said Betsy. “You could see it was not only beneficial for Bentley, but for the kids as well.”
Once Betsy and Carol were confident Bentley could perform flawlessly, the firefighters from the Crescent Fire Department took him to Crescent Elementary School to show students how to get out of a burning building and to stop, drop and roll. Bentley performed without a hitch. “When the kids saw him perform, they all stood up and clapped and cheered,” said Betsy. “That’s when I knew this dog really enjoyed his job.”
Carol agrees. “It was like a light bulb going off in his head,” she said. “He totally got what he was supposed to do and loved all the attention he was getting from the students. He is one of those dogs that really loves jobs like this and just thrives on doing this kind of work.”
And while performing in the capacity of a fire dog is Bentley’s favorite activity, Betsy has continued his training and he has completed his certification to be a therapy dog. Now this eye-catching canine is a welcome visitor at nursing homes, where he interacts with patients of every ability, even those suffering from dementia. He’s visited children in cancer wards in Wausau; been to the Oneida County fair to demonstrate the benefit of therapy dogs; and he will be attending the Hodag Home Show on March 23 in Rhinelander so visitors there can see how training dogs enhances the bond between owners and their canine pets.
But most of all, Carol and Betsy hope local fire departments will consider Bentley an important draw when they go out into the community to teach people of every age about fire safety. There’s no doubt Bentley feels right at home in these facilities. In fact, one day last week, Bentley visited the Rhinelander Fire Department, where he had no trouble fitting right in with the firemen and was comfortable hopping up on the big red trucks at the fire house. “Bentley’s open to working with any fire departments in the area,” said Betsy. “He’s up for parades, presentations or wherever he can bring attention to the importance of fire safety.”
And Carol is proud of this dog and his handler, who has worked tirelessly to find a way for this rescued pooch to feel needed and happy in his life. “Most people think you have to start a dog in this kind of training as a puppy,” said Carol. “Providing they have the right temperament, dogs of any age can learn therapy work. Every dog deserves to find an activity they enjoy and we hope Bentley can become an important tool in helping to teach people not only about fire safety, but the importance of therapy work as well.”
Those interested in using Bentley to teach people about fire safety may call Betsy Tarkowski at (715) 479-1154. To learn more about dog obedience or training in therapy work, call Carol Lofquist at (715) 453-8101.