To an ailing child in a hospital bed, the elderly in a nursing home, someone in a domestic abuse shelter or a prisoner locked away from family, a visit from a therapy dog can be a much-needed dose of love. Everyone has a deep, inner need for love, and unconditional love is the best kind. Seeing someone’s eyes light up and a smile come to their face is priceless, especially someone who is ill or depressed. Therapy dogs provide unconditional love in abundance, freely.
A therapy dog is different from a service dog. Service dogs assist their disabled owners in ways such as guiding the blind or hearing impaired, helping with mobility, seizure alert dogs, or other needed services. Service dogs are permitted in public areas with their owners.
Therapy dogs, on the other hand, work by invitation to nursing homes, hospitals, prisons, shelters or other institutions to visit with the residents. A therapy dog is a member of a team along with their owner or handler; they work together to provide love and stimulation to ailing people. These dogs can actually provide therapy to people recovering from strokes – by providing stimulation, or to someone who is depressed by their situation. They can help with physical therapy when a patient is encouraged to throw them a ball or to offer them a treat. They can stimulate memory or help with focus for an Alzheimer patient. They can reduce stress and lower blood pressure in people. Therapy dogs are more than just a cute furry face; they actually help people.
Certification of a potential therapy dog is required before they can visit with patients or residents of a facility. There are national and international certifying agencies such as Therapy Dogs Incorporated, Delta Society Pet Partners and Therapy Dogs International. There may be local agencies as well. Each of these organizations usually screens potential therapy dogs and their owner-handlers.
The most important trait required in a therapy dog is their temperament. A dog must be friendly and like people in general. Therapy dogs need to be well behaved and obedient to their owner’s commands. A dog will need to be able to sit, lay down, stay, and heel on command.
A dog who can handle unexpected situations, such as a patient yelling or a child grabbing onto their fur is a good candidate. Before becoming a full-fledged therapy dog, the dog and their owner will most likely be observed on several visits of patients or residents. Often, The Canine Good Citizen Test from the American Kennel Society is used to screen therapy dogs and their owners. This program stresses good manners in dogs, at home and in the community. It also promotes responsible pet ownership.
Dogs at least one year old are better suited for becoming a therapy dog. They have most likely outgrown their rambunctious puppy stage and can be calm and obedient. It is not necessary to take obedience classes with your dog, but it could be useful. How the owner and dog work together is important, they are a team. If being evaluated for this volunteer work, the observer will likely note the behavior of the handler and dog, as well as how well they work as a team. Not only will the owner need to guide the dog while visiting, they will also need to interact with the patient or resident. The owner may develop a sense about how a patient feels about the visit. The owner, and likely the dog, will learn how to approach different people and different situations. Some patient’s may experience sadness, remembering a dog from their past, other’s may be afraid. The owner should think about different situations and ideas about how to deal with them. The certifying agency or other therapy dog owners can provide help with this.
It has been reported that sometimes it is the dog who alerts the owner to a situation. After many visits, the dog may sense something about the patient of which the owner is unaware. A stoke patient may be unable to speak or move, but the dog nuzzles up to their hand. The owner can gently take the patient’s hand and stroke the dog. There have been instances where a recovered patient has spoken of remembering the visiting therapy dog.
A visit from a therapy dog and their owner can be helpful to the families of patients as well. It can be a comforting break, and something positive to talk about, when the friendly dog and owner spend some time with them. A therapy dog’s visit may even affect the personnel of the institution. There is plenty of love to go around for everyone.
By joining one of the national or international therapy dog organizations, an owner can receive valuable training and get plenty of advice from other members. Several of these organizations also provide insurance that covers the patients or others visited. Some may even provide insurance that covers the owner and the therapy dog.
Nearly any breed of dog can be well suited as a therapy dog. Wolf hybrids are generally frowned upon, however. Some organizations allow other pets besides dogs, but that is a different situation and not covered here.
The handler is required to ensure the general health of the potential therapy dog. Along with state laws regarding shots, against rabies for instance, a general health exam from your veterinarian will likely be needed. Periodic exams for internal or external parasites may also be required, depending on your geographic location. Everyone wants assurance that the dog will not pose any health risks to patients, but also that the dog’s immunity will prevent him or her from contracting any zoonotic agents himself. A zoonotic agent is one that can be transmitted between an animal and a human, such as some bacterial infections. General good health lowers the risk of the therapy dog contracting anything from the patients.
If your dog is friendly, well behaved, and meets the health criteria, he or she is probably a good candidate for a therapy dog. If you have a heart for bringing love to people who need it, you and your dog may make a wonderful team. Love has a tendency to bring out the best in people, whether a patient, the family of a resident, or even the personnel of an institution. You will probably find that you get as much out of each visit as those you are visiting.
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