Therapy Dog work isn’t something I ever thought I’d be involved in, mostly because I was a cat person until my spouse came along, and partially because I hadn’t even heard of pet therapy until someone suggested it. My three-year-old English Springer Spaniel, Charlie, and I visit our local nursing home every week without fail. We’ve formed relationships with both the residents and the staff at the home. We also work regularly with the local public library.
To clarify, therapy dogs are not service animals or emotional support animals. Charlie is my pet. He’s my best friend and my running buddy. He doesn’t perform any service for me or for others. He simply is a “professional good boy”. Charlie loves doing tricks for his friends at the nursing home and enjoys being read to by the pipsqueaks at the library. He’s kind and patient, and always a good laugh. He’s certified through Therapy Dogs International (TDI), a non-profit therapy dog organization based in New Jersey. It’s especially important to be certified with an organization so that you and your dog are covered under the organization’s insurance policy. It’s also beneficial to be held to a high standard as a volunteer.
There are several therapy dog organizations out there, and they all have similar requirements: up to date on shots, clean bill of health, and appropriate temperament, as well as a behavior test. TDI just happened to be the one that had classes and testing close to us. The test, I’ll admit, was pretty intense, though I’m sure it varies depending on the organization you’re interested in becoming a part of. Ours tested obedience commands like “leave it” and “stay” and then tested socialization by having people approach the dog using crutches or a wheelchair. At this point, Charlie and I are seasoned pros. He even has his advanced therapy dog title (though I’ll admit I haven’t sent in the paperwork yet) for visiting the nursing home 100 times. Although the training did a good job to prepare us, I’d say we’ve learned a lot on those visits.
Here are some of my tried and true tips to being a successful therapy dog team:
Learn some party tricks
Sometimes there is a person at the nursing home or library who can’t say hi to your dog due to disability. In these situations, having a trick your dog can do is perfect! It helps show the person how cute and friendly your dog is without putting them or the dog in any sort of unpleasant situation.
Charlie visits quite a few people with physical disabilities that make them unable to pet him. Having a cute spin, roll over, or shake makes it so nobody feels left out. My dog tends to be a little bit noise sensitive. So when there is an alarm going off or we are by something noisy like an oxygen machine, I like to do simple tricks like “touch” or paw targeting to get Charlie refocused and ready to work!
Practice wiggling into small spaces
Whether you’re at the nursing home or in a crowded library, it’s important to make sure your therapy dog is used to backing into corners, literally. At the nursing home Charlie will often have to climb under recliners and through walkers to get to his friends. Often times he will have to sit pressed right up against a bookshelf at the library. This may sound trivial, but being in close quarters with weird furniture and new people isn’t something we had practiced before we actively started going on visits! It took some time to get under our belts.
Get dry shampoo
Dogs have to be clean when they’re going out on visits. But sometimes I don’t have time to give Charlie a bath before a visit. A good dry shampoo and a quick brush through those beautiful spaniel ears always does the trick. My favorite thing is when I’m too busy to bathe him but I still get compliments on how good he smells. Believe me, a good dog safe dry shampoo is worth it if you’re even considering therapy dog work.
All of the training Charlie and I went through was focused on him. We worked countless hours making sure he was socialized to different sounds and equipment, to make sure he had a rock solid “leave it,” and to ensure he was ready to interact with people of all abilities. But the handler needs training too! A lot of the folks we interact with at the nursing home have dementia, a physical disability, or a mental disability. They are all wonderful people, and handlers must always be empathetic, open hearted people while we are there. I’ve found that the best way to learn is to just listen, reflect, and keep going. It’s sort of a fake it till you make it situation. Rely on your dog and the rest will happen with time.
Library visits take patience too! Charlie and I participate in Tail Waggin’ Tutors – a program where kids of all ages and abilities practice reading out loud to Charlie. It’s a lot of fun, but challenging too; for example, sometimes the children have no interest in reading at all or need help with their book. It’s important to balance empathy for the kids while also being a good handler for Charlie.
Know your dog
Therapy dog visits require you to be in tune with your dog. At a certain point in every visit Charlie tilts his head up at me and gives me a look that only means one thing: “You need to get me out of here. I’m done.” If Charlie gets past this point, he isn’t going to do anything bad. He just pretty much lays down and refuses to move. It’s his version of a temper tantrum. But still, I always leave before it gets to that point.
This connection took us a while, but now I know the face. I know the “take me home” face, the “that kid keeps pulling my ears” face, and even the “I have to pee NOW” face. All important. All need immediate attention. Joking aside – it really is essential to understand the signals your dog is giving you. During a visit, Charlie and I are a well oiled machine, a team. We need to work together and communicate subtly and quickly to make sure we are on the same page.
Master those five things, follow the training learned in therapy dog class, and you’re golden! For more information about therapy dog work, and a list of AKC recognized organizations, click here!
Kathleen M.L. West has written professionally for a number of publications. She currently lives in Southern Vermont with her very patient spouse. Together they have two English Springer Spaniels and two Border Collies. Kathleen works as a digital traffic coordinator for The Orvis Company. She used to be a cat person. Kathleen enjoys running, eating and, especially, complaining.