One of our clients, Gayle Wyche, was kind enough to share her Therapy Dog Team experiences with us in this guest article. If you’re interested in doing Therapy Dog Training, this is information you need to know!
Hello, my name is Gayle Wyche. I am a member and Tester/Observer for Alliance of Therapy Dogs – or ATD (formerly Therapy Dogs Inc.). I chose to become a member of ATD for several reasons.
Alliance of Therapy Dogs (ATD):
– has been around 30 years
– provides $5,000,000 insurance coverage to their members
– their application and testing process is simple and easy to follow (5 steps)
– their member services are responsive and organized
– their annual membership fee is inexpensive
– they accept titer testing in lieu of rabies over-vaccination
– they allow their members to feed a raw diet
– they encourage individuality in therapy visits.
By “individuality,” I mean, that you don’t have to be a member of a community therapy dog group; and you can choose where and when you want to visit on your own. Furthermore, ATD is an international registry of certified therapy dog teams. It is a true non-profit, completely volunteer organization offering assistance to and evaluation of pet therapy teams.
I believe ATD’s mission statement says it best, “our objective is to form a network of caring individuals and their special dogs who share smiles and joy with people, young and old alike.” (www.therapydogs.com)
Why you should consider therapy work
Like most dog owners, I enjoy spending time with my dog whether it be training, or just goofing around playing fetch. One of the highlights of our time together is the therapy work we do as a team. I know so many pet owners who tell me, “I wish I had time to do therapy work; my dog would be so good at it.” Hopefully this article will help to persuade those dog owners that they DO have time, in addition to filling in the gaps for those who are curious about the life of a therapy dog team.
To understand what pet therapy is and specifically canine therapy work, I have a simple exercise for dog owners. Sit down on a couch or chair and ask your dog to come over. When he comes over and puts his head in your lap and you pet him, how do you feel? What happens to your day? What happens to your stress level for that moment in time? That’s pet therapy 101. Now, imagine how individuals who are alone, or suffering, physically or mentally would feel.
Research shows that dogs help people in many ways:
– Bringing joy and laughter, even for a short time
– Taking a person’s mind off personal problems, aches, pains, and worries
– Providing soft comforting fur to be petted and stroked
– Acting as an ice breaker in getting people to share their emotions and stories
– Giving a chance for people to communicate with others
– Lowering stress levels and blood pressure
– Rekindling warm memories of their pets
When I am at a care facility I am continually being told, ”thank you” for the service I provide via pet therapy. This is such a big contradiction, it isn’t a service; it is a joy. Plain and simple, my dog and I get so much more back than what we give. My dog loves the attention and the love he gets. I love knowing I can share that and make someone’s day brighter. Hallmark moment, I know. In reality, though, it is true.
What are you passionate about?
On that note, one of the key things to consider, if you are interested in Pet Therapy work (let’s just call it service, shall we?), is your area of passion. What I mean by that is where do you want to perform this service and for whom? For me, it was the Alzheimer’s and Dementia care community. I have a family history dealing with this illness and I had a non-certified therapy dog which helped my family and others on a daily basis. My dog’s name was Bobby, and he would spend time visiting my Dad and then, on his own volition, he would wander to each and every room in the care facility to say “hi.” He was a natural, and anyone could see that he loved it. I watched and felt his “service” every day.
Before you embark on the idea of doing pet therapy, think about the where and who you want to help. The reason this is important lies in the fact that not all days will be bright and sunny. You may experience sadness and depression as well so, your passion has to sustain you in those dark days. Also, remember your dog and you will be working as a team, and as such, he will be there for your stress or anxiety as well. If you aren’t committed, he will be aware of it and it will be hard on him.
Types of dogs for therapy work
Another concern is the type of dog you have. Notice that I didn’t say breed. This was on purpose. In my opinion, pet therapy work isn’t breed specific. The individual dog’s temperament is the most important criteria. What helps that temperament is training and exposure; the more training time you spend with your dog and the more things he is exposed to, the better. Some people don’t find their dogs until they are older (the dogs I mean) and so their history is sketchy; that is okay.
Through training, you bond as a team with your dog, and you know what he is capable of just as much as he knows what you are capable of. Training involves taking classes with a dog trainer, being around other dogs, and walking your dog in various environments while exposing him to other people, animals and environmental conditions (noise, lights, temps, etc…). From these experiences, you can get a clearer picture of how your dog will respond to stress and fast, ever-changing situations.
One of the gold standards in therapy work is having a dog obtain his AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) title. The CGC tests handler to canine behavior, stranger to canine behavior and canine to canine behavior. These are the areas your dog and you need to be able to pass in the process of becoming a therapy dog team. Please understand, you don’t have to have a CGC to become a therapy dog team, but it helps to determine a team’s temperament and their eventual success as a pet therapy team.
Exposure to the environment
The next step to think about in the process of becoming a therapy dog team is exposure to the environment you want to participate in as a therapy team. For example, if you are interested in visiting an Alzheimer’s/Dementia care facility, you will want to make sure your dog is accustomed to some of the behaviors and equipment found in that environment. One of my therapy visits involved an individual who would scream at the top of his lungs for a few minutes until he adjusted to something new in his space. My dog didn’t react to this individual’s behavior; he just sat and waited for my cue. Now, if I had alerted or acted alarmed, he would have responded the same; because we were a “Team.” That is an important thing to remember. You, as well as your dog, have to become accustomed and desensitized to the therapy environment you visit.
Another visit I had involved meeting arriving flights at the airport. The noise, smells, confusion, and overall feeling of stress were something my dog and I were used to so it was an easy transition. Think about those criteria when you are doing your training as well. Work as many distractions into your training as possible and vary it weekly. Therapy work can be in schools, colleges, airports, rehab centers, assisted living communities, industrial warehouses, funeral homes, hospitals, hospice facilities, group homes and pretty much anywhere people feel stress and need some TLC. You are only limited by your own imagination…
Wow, this sounds like a HUGE time commitment. NOT! Don’t get me wrong, it will take time, but it is time you are already spending with your dog. The crucial time is the training and that is something we as dog owners enjoy, otherwise we wouldn’t be dog owners. If you take the time to work with your dog outside of your house and expose him to lots of distractions while you are training, the rest is a cake walk. An actual therapy visit can be anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour. If you are in a facility, your visit can last 30-45 minutes and your dog will let you know when he is done. We have visited 3-4 times a week in different facilities, but it is YOUR choice as to when, how often and how long. You will have to judge this based on your dog and his recovery as well as your own. Remember you are a “team.” I will say that once you establish a relationship with a facility or group, your dog will look forward to it and it will be like second nature to you both.
Let’s review: you have determined your dog has the temperament to be a therapy dog, you have a passion for a place or group you would like visit, and you have trained and exposed your dog to varying environments. So now, let’s discuss how to start therapy visits. Most, not all, facilities and individuals require a therapy dog to be certified. What that means is having a third party evaluate and assess you and your dog to make sure that you are safe to visit others and that you work well as a therapy dog and handler team. This third party typically has insurance in place to cover you in the event of an accident or injury while you are visiting, and additionally they do a background check. The certification process varies greatly within these organizations. Some organizations require a large yearly application fee, group visits and a lengthy testing process. I suggest that you research the organization to see which one meets your needs and will be there for you if you should need them. The AKC website lists several to check out (link here).
I hope I have enlightened and convinced some dog owners to pursue becoming a certified pet therapy team with your canine friend. Being a valued member of your local community through pet therapy can provide some lasting friendships and crucial support for others in need. Remember, pet therapy visits are an activity that you and your dog can continue for most of your lives together. For a senior dog, the feeling that they can make other people happy, can sometimes make a profound difference in their quality of life. For you, these visits can give you a warm feeling and the knowledge you did something for someone else.
(We are so thankful to Gayle for sharing this information with us. We offer Therapy Dog Training at all of our Valor K9 Academy locations and would love to help you and your dog on your journey to certification. For assistance, please email the Valor K9 Academy team at firstname.lastname@example.org.)