Wednesday, May 12, 2010
By Julia Williams
Last month I wrote about some of the many hard working dogs I admire. Naturally, therapy dogs are among this elite group of canine good citizens who contribute to our society. A therapy dog’s “job” is to visit nursing homes, retirement homes, hospitals, schools, prisons and other places where their emotional support is needed. Therapy dogs bring happiness, comfort, love and vitality to seniors, sick people, the disabled, and others who can benefit from the special spirit-lifting attention of a canine.
What exactly does a therapy dog do? Sometimes they provide much-needed companionship, and sit or lie quietly while being petted and talked to. Therapy dogs may work with disabled children, or visit elementary schools to help kids learn about humane treatment of animals. They might also visit patients in pediatrics, oncology, and other hospital wards or hospice centers.
Though sometimes thought of as service dogs, therapy dogs aren’t classified as such because they’re not trained to stay with people and don’t directly assist them with tasks. Therapy dogs also don't require the intensive specialized training that service dogs do, but they must still be taught basic canine obedience, as well as how to properly act in a variety of settings and situations.
Have you ever wondered if your dog has what it takes to be a therapy dog? The good news is that virtually any breed of dog, large or small, young or old, can become a certified therapy dog. However, not all dogs have the personality and temperament needed to be successful at it. A therapy dog must be friendly, even-tempered, consistent, gentle, confident, comfortable meeting new people, and reliable in unusual environments. Above all, they must love people and truly enjoy being around them while being hugged, kissed and petted.
Qualities that make a good therapy dog include:
Good Canine Manners
A therapy dog needs to walk nicely on a leash, at the handler’s side. A dog that pulls on their leash can pose a safety hazard. They should not jump up on people or bark during a visit.
Naturally, therapy dogs need to be properly socialized with people. But they also need to be socialized with other dogs as well as cats, birds and even rabbits, since a facility might have any one of those as a resident. Very often, dogs and handlers will do team visits, so it’s important that a therapy be able to get along well with other dogs.
Therapy dogs need to be very obedient, and come reliably when called, even in high-distraction environments. They can’t jump onto beds or laps uninvited, or put their mouths on people. They should be able to greet people and respond to affection while maintaining a “sit,” so they don’t overwhelm frail patients or frighten people who aren’t used to being around dogs.
Therapy dogs must respond to commands given in a calm, quiet voice. Besides basic commands such as sit, stay and down, many therapy dogs know commands such as Paws On (put your paws up on a bed or chair) and Paws Off (put your paws back on the floor).
During a visit, therapy dogs may be exposed to bits of food on the floor, buffets, meal trays and other tasty morsels. Good therapy dogs respond reliably to commands to resist such temptations, such as “leave it,” which is essential for their own health as well as the patients they are visiting.
Comfortable Being Touched
A therapy dog must tolerate being petted on every part of its body, including the ears, tail and feet. Some patients may have problems with motor skills and muscle control, and their petting can be awkward or inadvertently rough. Any signs of aggression towards people would disqualify a dog as a certified therapy dog.
Therapy dogs may encounter all sorts of strange and startling things, such as loud voices and noises, shouting, crowds and unexpected noises. They can’t be expected to ignore these things, but should be able to recover quickly and not try to bolt away.
Therapy dogs will likely encounter many strange pieces of equipment and unfamiliar objects such as crutches, wheelchairs and gurneys. They need to remain calm and be comfortable and confident around these things.
Cleanliness and Good Health
A therapy dog needs to be bathed and brushed often, especially right before a scheduled visit. Their nails need to be kept short to avoid accidental scratches. Their skin and coat should be healthy and free from any sores or skin irritations. They require current vaccinations and annual vet check-ups.
Good therapy dogs tolerate being dressed up in silly hats, costumes or capes that make people laugh and brighten their spirits. While this is certainly not a requirement or an everyday thing, it can be a way to add extra joy to holidays or other special occasions. It also doesn’t hurt if the dog knows a people-pleasing trick or two.
CANIDAE is proud to sponsor several therapy dogs, including Stitch, Riley and Sophie, a trio we profiled a few weeks ago. You can read their touching story here, or check out other special canine achievers on the CANIDAE website.
Read more articles by Julia Williams