Research has shown that pet therapy can be very beneficial to our mental health and happiness, and can even boost our immune system and lower blood pressure! There seems to be some special healing power that comes from the unconditional love of a pet – even if the pet doesn’t belong to the patient.
What does a therapy dog do?
A therapy dog simply visits those in need and supplies a dose of unconditional love to brighten their day. Spending time with a dog lifts a person’s spirits, reduces stress, and can even encourage a positive state of mind to help alleviate various physical and emotional challenges.
What makes a great therapy dog?
A great therapy dog is one that is happy-go-lucky and loves new experiences. It’s a dog that has a friendly disposition toward strangers, is confident in unfamiliar environments, doesn’t fear sudden noises or movements, likes other dogs, and is well-behaved and easily controlled on a leash. All dogs can be trained to follow commands, but it takes a unique personality to become a great therapy dog. Your dog has to LIKE going places, meeting new people & experiencing new sites, sounds and smells. After all, if your dog doesn’t enjoy these things, he/she won’t enjoy therapy work.
How do I know if my dog & I would be a good therapy dog team?
Does your dog enjoy meeting strangers? Does he/she love meeting other dogs? Can you easily control your dog while he/she is on a leash? Are you interested and able to volunteer time at least once a month to visit those in need of a therapy dog visit? If you answered “Yes!” to all of these questions, you & your dog will be a very welcomed and appreciated team.
What if my dog has the personality to be a therapy dog, but doesn’t always listen to me when he/she is excited?
No problem. You’re half way there! With a little on-leash obedience training and practice, you & your dog will have what it takes to be a great team! Contact a local trainer to discuss the behaviors you want to improve. If you’re in the Richmond Heights, OH area, check out my Therapy Dog Prep Program. My program includes all of the commands (& more) your dog will need to know, plus lots of practical tips to help your visits be stress free for both you & your dog. All of this is based on my professional career as a dog trainer, as well as nearly 10 years of hands-on therapy dog experience with my own dog.
What will the Evaluator be looking for?
Regardless of organization you decide to join, the Therapy Dog Evaluator will assess your dog’s personality, confidence level & behavior, as well as how you handle various situations. For example, a therapy dog should:
• Walk politely on the leash; no pulling, lunging or barking.
• Be well socialized with a variety of people; enthusiastic to meet strangers, regardless of person’s size, shape, color, gait, clothing, etc.
• Greet people without jumping on them.
• Not pick up objects off the floor (even food).
• Be curious but not concerned about unfamiliar objects (like wheelchairs, crutches, canes, etc.), sudden sounds (like something hitting the floor) or movements.
• Even if you aren’t directly asked by the Evaluator, your dog should also be housebroken and, therefore, NEVER have an accident while on a visit. (If your dog is sick, don’t visit.)
Likewise, the Therapy Dog Evaluator will also assess how you interact with and handle your dog. Examples: Do you ensure the dog doesn’t jump on the stranger while greeting them? Does your dog want to come & meet the Evaluator? How does your dog react to meeting another dog?
How can I get started?
Step 1: Determine what types of facilities you’d like to visit. For example: schools, libraries, hospitals, nursing homes, hospice facilities, physical rehab facilities, assisted living homes, even funeral homes are getting in on benefits of having a therapy dog during planning and viewings.
Step 2: Contact the facility (or a few places) you’re interested in visiting and ask which therapy dog organization(s) they require you to be registered with. For example, Cleveland Clinic requires you to be registered through Pet Partners. Some places also require their own (human) volunteer training program to be completed before you and the dog can begin visiting. And some places don’t require official therapy dog membership, but must have proof of vaccinations to ensure the dog is healthy, parasite free, friendly, well-behaved, etc. (This information should be kept updated & on file at the facility you visit.) The only real benefit of you & your dog becoming registered with a therapy dog organization is that your visits will be covered by the therapy dog organization’s insurance if your dog causes any damage during a visit. Otherwise, you will be held personally liable if your dog damages any object or harms a person while you are visiting them — even if it’s an accident.
Step 3: Research various therapy dog organizations to see what their membership procedure entails. Most will require some paperwork and at least a health certificate from your veterinarian before your dog can be evaluated. Also take note of each organization’s requirements and restrictions. Here are some important considerations:
• What specific commands or behaviors will your dog be evaluated on?
• Does the therapy organization restrict the type of training methods or tools that are used? For example, Therapy Dogs International prohibits any dog that has been trained on an e-collar (yes, even an Invisible Fence) to become a therapy dog. Most, if not all therapy organizations prohibit any type of training collar to be used during the test, as well as during visits.
• Are there any other restrictions that concern you? For example, Pet Partners will not register a dog that is fed a raw diet.
• What type of visit requirements does each therapy organization have? For example, Therapy Pets Unlimited has a list of approved facilities based on location and allows you to choose the facility that you’d like to visit, but requires that you visit at least once per month.
• How will your dog be tested… in a group of other handlers and their dogs or one-on-one with the Evaluator?
• Where is the nearest Evaluator? Do you go to their business, meet at your home, or meet at a selected facility?
• Is there a fee to be evaluated/tested? (And do you get your fee back if your dog does not pass?)
Are you ready to become a therapy dog team or are you looking for a therapy dog team to visit your organization or facility? Either way, start by visiting various therapy dog websites. Here you’ll find how to become a therapy dog team member, as well as instructions as to how to request a team for visits. This is a very brief list of some therapy dog organizations. You’ll find more with a quick Google search or “Therapy Dog Organizations”.
Therapy Pets Unlimited
Pet Partners Therapy Dogs
The Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs
Therapy Dogs United – Join Your Dog
PAWS for People | Pet-Assisted Visitation Volunteer Services
ASPCA Animal Assisted Therapy Programs | ASPCA
Therapy Dog Program – American Kennel Club
I’m confident that you’ll find Therapy Dog work to be incredibly rewarding to both you AND your dog, and very appreciated by those in need. So, get out there and make some people happy! WOOF!