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Tales Of Therapy Dogs: The Who and What of Therapy Dogs

Tales Of Therapy Dogs: The Who and What of Therapy Dogs

Tales Of Therapy Dogs: The Who and What of Therapy Dogs

The majority of dogs do not perform the tasks that they were originally bred to do.  Terriers do not spend their days searching for vermin.  Few herders have flocks to move among pastures.  While some guardians do guard property, most of them do not.  Unless your northern breed lives above the 49th parallel, it is unlikely that the dog pull sleds.  Our dogs spend their days being companions.  So,  it is possible that your dog needs a job and becoming a therapy dog may be the job for them.   

Most domestic animals such as cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, and horses are eligible to become therapy animals but the greatest number of therapy animals are dogs.  Reptiles are ineligible to become therapy animals because little is known about their behaviors in potentially stressful situations.  Although many people enjoy keeping reptiles, a fair number of people are uneasy around reptiles and would not welcome a visit from an animal without fur or feathers.  

Therapy dogs are very special animals.  They love being with their own family members but therapy dogs enjoy interacting with strangers too.  Therapy dogs seem to key in on people’s emotions and know when someone needs a visit or a bit of comforting.  That comfort might be sitting next to a person, politely listening to their conversation, and accepting petting.  At other times, laying their head in someone’s lap is the thing to do.

Therapy dogs may be purebred or mixed breeds.  The personality and behavior of the individual dog is important but the breed of that dog is not.  Many therapy dogs are rescues but others have always lived in their forever homes.  A fair number are of therapy dogs are retired show dogs who need a job after their time in the show ring is over.  Some therapy dogs are active in agility, fly ball, or herding trials while others are dedicated couch potatoes.  Small dogs are a great size if someone wants a therapy dog to sit in their lap.  A larger dog is tall enough that they can greet someone sitting in a chair or in a bed without that person having to lean down to pet them.  But large or small, or an in between size, all therapy dogs can be great cuddlers.  

Generally, dogs must be at least eighteen months old to become a therapy dog.  Younger dogs need some time to be puppies and develop some maturity before they take on therapy work.  But there are many dogs who do not start therapy work until they are five or six or eight years old.  Most therapy animal organizations require that a handler know the dog for at least six months before they can evaluate and become a therapy team.  It is essential for the handler and dog to have time to get to know each other, learn to trust each other, and develop a positive bond before they go out and deal with the public in a therapy setting.

A dog needs to have good basic obedience skills before they can become a therapy dog.  Those skills include reliability demonstrating come, sit, stay, leave it, walking on a leash without pulling, and not jumping up on people.  In other words, they need to have good manners.  Then, the handler takes a workshop that discusses many topics related to animal therapy work.  Some of the topics are:  preparing the dog and handler for a visit, what to expect during a visit, working with facility staff, working with children, seniors, and with those who have challenges such as hearing impairment, mobility issues, and memory concerns.  Time is spent discussing the health and safety interests of clients and teams.  The next step to becoming a therapy team, is to undergo a team evaluation (practical test).  Therapy dogs work as part of a team so both the dog and handler go thru the evaluation process together.  Most teams pass the test on their first try, but if they do not, they can work on their skills and test again on another day.  

After the dog and handler are accepted as a therapy team, it is time to decide where to visit.  Some handlers will join a therapy organization knowing where they want to visit, such as  nursing homes.  Other handlers need to visit several types of facilities so they can decide what is a good fit for the team.  A good therapy organization will provide each new team to with a mentor who will assist them as they navigate the new world of therapy animal volunteering.

Dogs have preferences just as people do.  Not all dogs enjoy being around younger children, but working with teens may be fine for them.  Other dogs are drawn to seniors.  Sometimes, a handler wants to go to a nursing home but the dog is reluctant to visit there. It is up to the handler to know their dog partner and to let them have a big say in where they visit.  In this case, it would be better to listen to the dog and choose a different type of facility such as a hospital or school. Besides facility populations, the handler must consider the facility environment.  Are the floors slick?  Are there objectional sounds or smells?  Is the staff welcoming and helpful?  Can you see you and your dog being comfortable visiting the facility on a regular basis?  There is a lot to consider in finding a place you want to visit.    

A few special dogs love all people, including strangers.  They sense the emotions of people and comfort them in stressful situations.  Add in obedience skills and those dogs are excellent candidates to become therapy dogs.  If your dog needs a job and you want a shared activity, volunteering as a therapy animal team might be good choice for both of you. 

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