When you bring a dog home, the hope is the new addition will enrich your life.
But more pet owners are volunteering their dogs to share their talents, abilities and love with others.
As a therapy dog, your pet can provide treatment for mental health, healing and even happiness.
Pet-patient interaction has been proven to ease depression, speed up recovery, help with pain relief and lower anxiety and blood pressure.
“It is absolutely amazing,” said Billie Smith, executive director at Therapy Dogs Inc. in Wyoming. “The amount of places these dogs are going, and it just seems to keep growing.”
Thousands of facilities across the country now use therapy dogs.
But becoming a therapy dog is not a walk in the park; it requires equal amounts of dedication from the pet and the owner.
There is a common misconception that only certain breeds can become therapy dogs. While not all dogs are suited to do therapy work, it is not based on the breed, nor the size or age of the dog, Smith said. Therapy Dogs Inc. works with everything from a one-pound chihuahua to a 200-pound bullmastiff.
A dog’s temperament helps determine whether it will be a good therapy candidate.
They need to have a solid disposition, according to Rendy Schwartz, head dog trainer at Anything is PAWSible in Chicago.
That means the dog needs to be friendly, open to meeting new people and have a high stress tolerance, which means how accepting the dog is of new experiences.
“Are they easily startled, are they fearful, are they confident?” Schwartz said. “You really want a dog that has a pretty high stress tolerance in order to go into these atmospheres and feel OK.”
Even if your dog has those intrinsic qualities, it may still need fine-tuning in obedience. Training facilities offer such classes.
Therapy dog work takes place in settings that require meticulous manners: hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, assisted living, hospice, day-care centers, juvenile detention centers, prisons, and even courtrooms and funeral homes, where a dog can calm the mood.
Dogs need to be trained to correctly respond not only to their handler, but also to their surroundings. A dog may get upset at the smell of urine, or scared at the sound of an oxygen tank
Schwartz teaches a four-week course that prepares dogs to work in canine therapy programs and pass the therapy exams. The course also determines if this type of work is a good fit for owner and dog.
“I help them gain the tools they need, so they can meet the criteria, and pass the tests to make it into the therapy dog arena,” Schwartz said.
Once you think your dog is ready to start working, you have to be tested by a certified organization. Dogs can test more than once, as passing it the first time around is very difficult.
Each center tests differently. Some of the exercises might include: getting around people, reactions to unusual situations and entering through a door to visit a facility. The test is designed to simulate visits at a facility and help evaluate the potential therapy dog.
Once a dog passes the test and is certified, the dog-handler team can begin making visits.
“It’s the best thing you can do with your dog,” Smith said. “It’s just priceless, the joy you see on faces as you’re coming down the hall with that dog.”
Jennifer Fossner, who has worked in health care for several years, has witnessed this firsthand.
At a previous job, she said, patients constantly told her how much they missed their own dog or asked how their dog was doing.
“Giving them 20 minutes with a dog and seeing their faces light up – they forget why they’re there... You can’t take that smile off a kid’s face when they get to play with a dog... That joy can’t be brought by somebody reading them a story,” Fossner said.
That experience motivated Fossner to enroll her 5-year-old Australian cattle dog, Dani, in obedience classes at Anything is PAWSible so she can become a therapy dog.
“I wanted an opportunity that would allow me to volunteer with my dog and help people at the same time.”
Fossner said she hopes to work with Dani in rehab institutions.
Also at the class was Maria Triolo and her German shepherd mix, Lucia.
“I was diagnosed with cancer 20 years ago, and I spent a lot of time in hospitals. One of the things I missed so much was my dog,” she said.
Now she can have her dog, Lucia, provide comfort for other patients.
“I go back to my own experience in being sick. I longed to have my dog,” she said. “So to have my dog be able to give that back, it’s kind of a way of me giving back as well.”