What is a Therapy Dog
Have you seen a dog in places dogs are usually not permitted? Chances are the dog could be a therapy dog. Many places you will see a therapy dog is at a nursing home, library, hospital, or rehabilitation center. While they are allowed into the facility, they do not have the right to enter without permission.
Therapy dogs are different than service dogs. Service dogs help a person, called a Handler, by providing a service to that specific Handler many of who have health concerns or disabilities and who live with the service dog. Service dogs are allowed in many areas therapy dogs are not. Therapy Dogs on the other hand provide therapy with their Handler, who they live with, to other people who can benefit from a visit with them. Therapy dogs can provide pawsitive emotional, physical and psychological benefits to people on an individual basis or in a group.
Therapy dogs come in all breeds, colors, shapes and sizes. Remember it is their temperament that is important not what kind or size of fur body they live in. A therapy dog must have a passion for being a therapy dog. Their temperament will carry a therapy dog through many different situations. While some dogs can do tricks, jump up and give you their paw, that is not what a therapy dog does. A therapy dog is gentle, relaxed and ready to sit near you on the floor or on your bed. They listen without passing judgment or jumping up, pawing, or barking. Therapy dogs have big hearts to share with everyone and love meeting people. They love to get attention and seem to know when to roll over for a belly rub.
A therapy dog provides therapy by just being there as company, showing the patient how to relax and that they care. The presence of the therapy dog allows the patients to focus on the dog instead of any stress and pain. Sometimes they are a reminder of a pet the patient has at home or had as a child and that can provide motivation for a healing attitude.
Therapy Dog Organizations
There are many different organizations that have therapy dogs such as Therapy Dog International (TDI), Therapeutic Paws of Canada (TPOC), St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program, to name just a few. Check your area to see if there is a therapy dog program near you.
Therapy Dog Certification
You can recognize a therapy dog because they will be wearing an ID tag to let you know they are certified. They will also be well groomed and behaved. The Therapy Dog Handler should also be wearing an ID tag to let you know they are also certified.
It's not just any dog who gets to wear the therapy dog tag and be certified. There is a rigorous program to determine if your dog qualifies. Qualification is by way of a behavior assessment not an obedience test. Keep in mind the dog can meet many strangers on each visit, some young, some old, some disabled, some that are afraid of dogs. Not only does the dog go through an evaluation session but so does the dog Handler. As a volunteer program, Handlers must adhere to the organization's volunteer guidelines. Check their guidelines before you apply. Normally a therapy dog must be at least one year old and not pregnant. Handlers must be at least 18; however, sometimes Handlers can be younger if accompanied by an adult Handler all who have passed evaluations. Annual Veterinarian checkups are also required to ensure your dog is in good health, properly vaccinated and able to continue in the program.
Therapy Dog Evaluations
Both the therapy dog and Handler undergo evaluation sessions. An example of an evaluation skit would be a group of children sitting in a circle playing and eating potato chips while the dogs walk around the group. The dog would be required to not join in or try to eat the potato chips. And the dog would walk on the inside of the circle so you are not in between them and the yummy potato chips! Yikes!
Other scenarios include people approaching dogs with equipment such as canes, wheelchairs, walkers and crutches, to ensure the dog doesn't get caught up in the equipment or bark or get scared. Other skits have people wearing uniforms or carrying equipment so the dog is not scared by lab coats, loud or strange noises and does not get startled or anxious. Some therapy dogs go into libraries and sit while kids read to them. In this case, it is ok for the dog to put their paw on the book to encourage the child to read but not ok if the dog was to try to eat the book!
Evaluations also teach when your therapy dog shows signs of distress, the visit or therapy session is over. A therapy dog's health is very important. Training includes signs to watch for like yawning, panting or wanting to leave the area. Remember a lot of nursing homes have a high level of heat to keep seniors warm but dogs can overheat quickly in these circumstances. Offer your therapy dog drinking water before and after sessions.
Therapy Dogs Sessions
A therapy session begins at home, being well groomed and dressed for the session - ID tag, leash, collar and tags on. Handler also groomed, proper clothing, ID tag, carry tote of basic supplies for any mishaps, clean ups, extra leash. On site the session begins in the parking lot, being behaved entering the facility, greeting all patients from walking in the door, visiting the nursing station, patient events, rooms and family members coming and going. Therapy dogs are good at spending time with the patient but also being observant to see others coming and going. They include everyone in their visit - patients, doctors, workers and visitors.
Dogs also need to be able to be social with other animals. Sometimes facilities have cats that live in the facility that act as therapy cats or other therapy dogs in another section of the facility that may cross paths coming or leaving the facility. A therapy dog needs to be able to pass by the other dog or cat and also by any food without having a snack! Cats are pretty resourceful creatures who can revert to statutes so dogs just pass right on by without even seeing them.
If you decide to have your dog be a therapy dog and you both pass the assessment, advise the place you are visiting of any health concerns for your dog so they can let patients know if your dog is allergic to certain foods, not to give them treats or save them part of their lunch. A therapy dog is visiting to spread their unconditional love, not to get fed. Patients like to give them food to say thank you but instead, as reward for their service, a therapy dog is very happy to accept pats on the head, belly rubs, ear massages, kind words, hug and most of all - love.
Once your dog has become a facilities' official therapy dog that visits on a regular basis, they may appear in the facilities' calendar that gets sent out to all the patients to let them know of the activities for the month. Imagine the questions of family members when my dog named "Whiskey" was added to the calendar. There were a few family members asking what "Whiskey" on the calendar meant. Imagine their delight and relief when they discovered that Whiskey was a dog that comes to visit their family member.
Therapy Dog On A Mission
Therapy Dogs take their job very seriously and are on a mission to meet everyone. Yes, I said everyone. They are friendly, open to being petted, kind, compassionate, loving, confident and can bring even the shyest person out of their shell. Be prepared for a Therapy Dog on a mission every time you go somewhere with your therapy dog from a walk around the block to a dog park, to a sports game, to your own home. Once a therapy dog, always a therapy dog, even on their days off and after they retire from the program.
Maria Lisa Polegatto
February 20, 2016
edited April 17, 2016