The primary objective of a therapy dog and its handler is to provide comfort and companionship to patients in hospitals and care facilities, and to encourage participation in programs such as Read to Rover, where pets are taken into an educational setting to help students develop their reading skills by practicing with a canine partner.
Therapy dogs help people primarily in emotional ways, boosting morale, alleviating depression, and helping brighten what might otherwise be a routine, lonely and boring day for those who reside in a care facility. They can rekindle memories of beloved pets, provide a subject for conversation, and regular visits can give a patient something to look forward to. For children involved in the Read to Rover Program, reading to a very non-judgmental dog can be great fun as well as a confidence booster for those a bit unsure of their skills.
There are several organizations that certify dogs for therapy work, including Pet Partners and Therapy Dogs Inc. These national volunteer organizations are dedicated to regulating, testing and registering therapy dogs and their volunteer handlers for the purpose of visiting nursing homes, hospitals and wherever else therapy dogs are needed.
All types of dogs are used as therapy dogs. The dogs must go through training and must be tested and evaluated by certified TD Inc. or Pet Partners. Standards are very high and not all dogs will meet the stringent criteria. For those who do, the hours spent brightening the lives of those who need it most are truly a labor of love for handlers and canines.
In order to be considered as a Therapy Dog, a dog must be at least one year old and have a good disposition. Both dog and handler must be willing to go through training, testing and evaluation by a regulating organization. A health record or equivalent form from one of the certifying organizations must be completed and signed by a licensed veterinarian. Dogs must be clean and well groomed for their visits to facilities.
For information about Pet Partners go to http://petpartners.org/
For information on Therapy Dogs, Inc go to www.therapydogs.com
So you think you and your furry friend would make a good therapy team?
Cathy Clark of Grand Junction and her dogs Missy and Zack have been a therapy dog team for many years. Each week they visit residents at Mesa Manor Nursing Home, St. Mary’s Hospital and the Grand Junction Regional Center for the Handicapped. She and the dogs love their work and rarely miss a visit, knowing the comfort and joy it brings.
Clark has some practical suggestions for people who think they and their dogs would make a good therapy team:
- Dogs either love or hate therapy work. Just because yours is a great family pet doesn’t mean it will do well as a therapy dog.
- Many people get started with therapy work and then don’t stay with it. It takes lots of time, patience and dedication on the part of animal and owner.
- Be sure you are willing and able to make the commitment.
- The most important thing a dog owner should do with their pet when considering therapy work is to enroll it in obedience classes and make sure it can follow commands.
- Dogs need to be socialized as much as possible with people of all ages, from children to elderly, and with other dogs of all sizes.
- Observe the dog’s temperament closely. For therapy work they should be calm, not high strung.
- An owner has to be able to watch their dog for signs of stress and be able to handle any situation that might come up in a care facility or around any large group.
- Dogs can burn out in therapy work just as owners can and it is important to monitor their behavior carefully. On one of Clark’s weekly therapy days she and the dogs are at two facilities for a total of five hours. All 3 are exhausted by the time they return home.
- Dogs must pass the Canine Good Citizen Test through the American Kennel Club. Once they do they are eligible to take the Therapy Dog Test.
- Dogs have to be examined by a veterinarian and submit all necessary paperwork and renew their license each year. If they skip a year they must be retested by a therapy dog evaluator and rechecked by their veterinarian.
- Before each therapy visit dogs must be bathed, brushed, have nails clipped and clean teeth.
Owners need to treat therapy work like a job and make a regular routine and stick to it. People will look forward to visits and will be very disappointed if the team fails to show up.