The actual therapeutic role of a trained therapy dog lies in providing emotional support and comfort, even if just for a brief period. They don’t do tricks or perform services. Their value consists of making a cancer patient forget the rigors of treatment, if only temporarily, or brightening the day of a resident in a nursing home. Besides, rehabilitation and nursing home facilities, therapy dogs may visit:
- Social service institutions
- Disaster victims
Therapy dog candidates
Therapy dogs come in all types and sizes. While any potential therapy dog must possess a good temperament, there’s far more to it than that. Good with people he knows doesn’t necessarily mean exemplary with strangers. Therapy dogs must love meeting new folks but remain calm when doing so. Therapy dogs encounter fragile and physically and/or mentally compromised people. Jumping up, pawing or similar behaviors that could inadvertently hurt someone aren’t acceptable.
Besides a sterling disposition, the therapy dog must display tolerance. That means if a little kid hugs him too tightly, or a senior citizen holds him in a death grip, he’ll put up with it until you come to his rescue. A therapy dog must reliably put up with a lot.
Then there’s food. It’s possible a patient in a health-care facility has the remains of lunch or some snacks in the vicinity. Your dog mustn’t start begging, or even worse, attempt to grab food within his reach.
The majority of young dogs aren’t good therapy animal candidates. Like the young in most species, they’re simply too energetic and rambunctious to keep calm for long periods. Once a dog hits middle age and settles down, it’s a different story.
Therapy dog people
Since it’s a true partnership, you must also ask yourself if you’ll make a good therapy dog person. While compassion and kindness leads you toward this type of volunteerism, it’s crucial that you recognize your pet’s skills and limitations. You are responsible for his well-being, so you must intervene gently but firmly if a patient squeezes or otherwise touches your dog in an inappropriate manner.
Dogs and their owners may feel more comfortable in certain situations, and there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you know the boundaries. Some dogs — and people — are fine in a room full of high-strung kids, while others will fare better dealing with the elderly. Anything that makes you or the dog nervous is best either avoided or strenuously worked on to overcome. Learning to read your dog’s signals is imperative. Remember that your dog takes his cues from you. If you appear upset, he will sense something amiss and may react accordingly.
Therapy dog certification
Various national, state and regional organizations offer therapy dog training and certification. A reputable therapy dog service provides liability insurance for certified participants. Even though dogs are carefully screened, they are dogs, after all, and the unexpected can occur. Some of the best-known national organizations include:
- The Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs
- The Good Dog Foundation
- Pet Partners
- Therapy Dogs International
All therapy dogs should have basic obedience training. Reputable therapy dog agencies don’t do a one-time screening, but require weeks of training for the dog and handler. After passing initial tests, you and your dog visit various settings with a trainer to get on-the-job experience. Top therapy dog organizations require annual assessment and recertification, for the benefit of all concerned.
If your dog is registered with the American Kennel Club, he may be eligible to receive the title of AKC Therapy Dog. Eligibility depends on certification from a national organization.
Therapy dogs often trigger memories of patients’ past pets and an easier time in their lives. For a senior citizen living in a nursing home, spending time with a therapy dog may bring back times enjoyed with their own canines. A child in the hospital discovers an understanding, furry friend who accepts him unconditionally. Even though a therapy dog isn’t a doctor, he can help patients heal.
Jane Meggitt graduated from New York University and worked as a staff writer for a major New Jersey newspaper chain. Her work on pets, equines and health have appeared in dozens of publications, including The Daily Puppy, The Nest Pets, Horse News, Hoof Beats and Horseback magazines.