Therapy Dogs International, Inc. (TDI) was founded in 1976 by Elaine Smith, formerly of Hillside, NJ, now a resident of California. A registered nurse working in England, Smith observed the benefits of pets interacting with patients. She noticed how the patients reacted to the daily visits of the chaplain and his companion, a Golden Retriever. Upon returning to the United States, Smith was determined to bring the concept of pet therapy to health care facility. She began this program with a rigorous training. Therapy dogs must pass the Canine Good Citizen Test before beginning training as a therapy dog. When that training is complete, they are tested by certified TDI instructors to see if their dispositions and behavior around hospital equipment is suitable for certification. They are re-certified each year and evaluated by their handlers for any behavioral problems that might arise. National organizations such as TDI and the Delta Society register these dogs and keep track of the hours of visitation they accrue. There are many other local organizations. Therapy dogs themselves must be monitored to ensure their own health and well-being. Handlers keep an eye out for signs of stress—such as excessive panting, a tucked-under tail, or erratic behavior—to make sure the dogs are not overburdened by their work.
Visiting with animals can help people feel less lonely, and less depressed. Visits from dogs can provide a welcome change from routine, or the renewal of old friendships. People become more active and responsive both during and after visiting with animals. An animal visit can offer entertainment, or a welcome distraction from pain and infirmity. People often talk to the dogs, and share with them their thoughts and feelings and memories. Animal visits provide something to look forward to. Stroking a dog or cat can reduce a person’s blood pressure. Petting encourages use of hands and arms, stretching and turning.
The pet makes it easier for two strangers to talk. It gives people a common interest and provides a focus for conversation. Many people in hospitals or group homes have had to give up pet ownership and they miss the casual acceptance a pet gives them. A dog pays little attention to age or physical ability, but accepts people as they are. The benefits continue even after the visit. The visit leaves behind memories not only of the visit, but of past experiences. It offers something for people to share.
There are now programs for children with reading disabilities called Paws to Read and sponsored by local libraries. Dogs sit quietly while children read to them. It enables the children to read without stress and improve their abilities. The handlers may ask questions about the stories after the child is done, but primarily the work is done by the dogs providing a judgment free environment and affection to the children.
One of our customers, Sandy, has worked with TDI for four years and take my golden retriever to hospitals, nursing homes, a local juvenile detention center and hospice facilities. “I have seen repeatedly the positive results from the visits. It is a little bit of normalcy in what may be for some a very difficult situation. During the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, therapy dogs were taken in and the students were greatly comforted by their companionship. They have gone in following natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina for comfort to those who have suffered and lost much. Unlike “working dogs” who assist the disabled, therapy dogs are “invited” in for their visitations and may be petted and talked to. Handlers are also instructed in appropriate behavior and TDI regulations.”