Could Your Dog Be a Therapy Dog?

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As dog lovers we all know how wonderful it feels to come home to a dog who is thrilled at our arrival. I admit I am flattered by my dogs’ enthusiasm. As their bodies wiggle with excitement and they ‘wooo’ hello I can’t help but smile, no matter how awful my day may have seemed before I walked through my door.

I would be hard pressed to aptly describe the positive impact my dogs have on my life. Aside from making me smile, my dogs keep me physically active. Their soft brown eyes have only to glance my way and I will reach for their leashes to make a dash to the local park. Anyone who is devoted to their dog will attest to the positive impact their dogs have on their lives, both physically and mentally.

When I was a child I couldn’t imagine an adult who wouldn’t have a dog. The only thing holding me back, after all, was my parents who felt that a limit of 5 at a time was reasonable! But, the truth of the matter is there are thousands of animal lovers out there who cannot have a dog due to the fact that they reside in health care facilities. As the scientific data piles in to back-up the notion of dogs as a component of a healthier life, care facilities are taking note and incorporating animals in their health care programs.

The Delta Society is an organization which trains volunteers and screens their pets for visiting animal programs in a variety of health care facilities. Delta’s nationwide network of volunteers consists of almost 3,500 teams. A team is a person and domesticated pet. Some of the animals in these teams are dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, pigs, guinea pigs, goats, horses and even chickens. More than 350,000 people are visited each year in 45 states.

In order to be certified by the Delta Society your dog must be screened by a veterinarian to ensure she is healthy and free from parasites, diseases and infections. Then there is a two part test which you and your dog must pass. The first part tests your control of your dog in an unfamiliar setting. It includes calmly accepting the greeting of a stranger, walking on a loose leash, coming when called and behaving politely around an approaching dog.

The second part of the test is designed to simulate some situations your dog might encounter while on a Pet Partners visit. This includes an evaluation of her reaction to clumsy and exuberant petting, a restraining hug, angry yelling and being held by a stranger. On a typical visit, a dog is handled by a lot of people, and sick people don’t always have the same posture or vocal regulation as healthy people. A dog may also be accidentally bumped by people while on visits and they can’t be spooked as a result.

Your dog may be the most lovable and well-behaved dog in the world but that doesn’t mean she is necessarily right for this job. Therapy visits are meant to benefit everyone involved, including your dog. So, if she isn’t comfortable with strangers or strange, new environments then it would be unfair to try to push her into this line of work.

A friend of mine who passed the test a couple of years ago describes it as “pretty rigorous.” She went on to say that at first she was nervous about passing the test and visiting was a bit challenging for her because she was already tired at the end of the day after working. But, the more she saw how happy her dog made others, the more gratifying the experience became, and the more energy she had to do it.

I tagged along on one of their visits and as her dog trotted gaily down the hall of the hospital, her nails clicking on the linoleum floor seemed to act as a signal to the nurses and attendants. They popped their heads out of the doorways or over their station desks to say ‘hi.’ My friend’s dog acknowledged the calls of her name with a slight turn of her head. But she didn’t seem easily distracted from her mission; a visit to see her special friend at the end of the hall. An attendant called out that the resident was in the lounge and as we headed in all eyes were on us.

I didn’t have to wait long to find out who was the person we were visiting because my friend’s dog trotted right to him and sat at his feet. He laughed and talked softly to her as he gently rubbed behind her ear. My friend watched the interaction with what looked like enormous pride. “It’s usually easier for an animal to break through to a person no matter how sick or down they may feel.”

I asked my friend to define what it is her dog does when she comes for a visit. “Well, she is great at sucking up to people,” she laughed. “She solicits attention and petting and gives them her attention.” It should come as no surprise that a resident of a care facility, such as a hospital or nursing home, is as flattered from the attention of a dog as we each are when we come home to our dog. The interaction and companionship is greatly anticipated, especially by residents who seldom have visitors.

She continued “She definitely makes people smile, but she also stimulates movement by soliciting petting.” One of the people they visit is an elderly woman, and even small movements play a part in keeping her active. “I have also seen her pull some residents out of their shell of depression by stimulating memories of their past pets,” she adds.

We head out to visit a couple of other people and then my friend says it’s time to go. The team’s visits are limited to an hour, which the Delta Society advises as the maximum time per visit. It’s important that serious consideration is given to the visiting dog’s comfort level.

The Delta Society encourages people to consider involvement in their Pet Partners Program. The breed, size and age of your dog are of little consequence. What is most important is that she or he be well trained, healthy and have a suitable temperament. Diane Emmons, the Delta Society’s Pet Partners Coordinator, sums up a candidate for this job as a dog “with good basic obedience skills, a good temperament and a dog who handles new situations with an air of curiosity rather than timidity.” If you think your canine companion fits this bill, their are lots of people out their who would love a visit.