Being a therapy dog and what it takes

For the past few months, Maggie and I have been volunteering with a wonderful program called The Peacock Foundation.  The Peacock Foundation calls itself a ‘new breed of therapy’ – what it is is therapy sessions for at-risk children, with animals involved in the sessions.  Maggie and I can’t say exactly which location we go to because it’s a safe house for people in abusive situations, but we can say the kids have been incredible.

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The sessions are very interactive.  We discuss Maggie’s past as an unwanted shelter dog and what she now looks for when making friends in a way that the children can relate to.  We all share life stories in the session as well.  At the end, Maggie and I answer questions about pet ownership and dog training, which is obviously one of our passions. Dogs can do amazing things just be being in the room with people, such as lowering stress levels and blood pressure, so how amazing is it that these kids get to spend their therapy session giving belly rubs to Maggie?

(I should mention that all of Maggie’s therapy activities are insured by Alliance of Therapy Dogs.  It’s important to makes sure these sessions are as safe as possible for all involved.)

I often get asked what it takes to make a therapy dog. It does take a special type of dog.  Not every dog actually enjoys being petted by complete strangers and even fewer enjoy being petted without becoming needy.  Your dog can’t be the type to pick up everything on the floor – it could be stray medication or biohazard material.  They have to be gentle.  Sometimes people in nursing homes and hospitals have IV lines and fragile skin.  A quick paw movement or jump up could cause serious harm.  And while if your dog isn’t suited for therapy work, maybe due to energy or focus, there are lots of awesome things you can still do together like agility or obedience.

Where to start? If you think therapy work may be something you’re interested in, I suggest taking a look at where you might volunteer.  Some hospitals and nursing homes require you to be affiliated with specific therapy dog organizations.  You can usually go to their website and see what they require.  I highly recommend the organization Alliance of Therapy Dogs, who we’re with.  The therapy testing isn’t always easy and it takes time (as does therapy work), and many therapy groups require a commitment of a minimum number of hours each month.  These are all things to think about before signing yourself and your dog up as a therapy team.

  1. Research where you want to volunteer and see that it’s a good fit for you and your dog. There are all sorts of therapy types from hospitals, nursing homes, to group therapy sessions like the one mentioned above.
  2. If you have a specific location in mind, see what insurance and therapy group they work with
  3. Begin training
  4. Insure it’s something both you and your pup enjoy

Another great place to start is by training for CGC, which is the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen test. It is similar to many of the therapy dog tests but toned down to suit most dogs and trainers, which makes it a great stepping stone for harder challenges.  I’m a CGC evalautor and always enjoy meeting the very well-behaved dogs that come to test.  CGC is a fun goal for any dog owner – click here to see the current CGC test.

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Going to a therapy session takes some preparation.  I pack a bag of Maggie’s things for the day.   Depending where we are going, we might need treats for shows or her blanket so she has her own place to lie down.  We need to remember to bring our therapy dog card.  The night before, Maggie has a bath.  Hospitals require it, but really, no one wants a dirty dog to visit.  Recently, I’ve been using Earthbath Shed Control Shampoo and Conditioner.  These are completely organic products which help control dander, shedding, and allergens, none of which you want to be bringing into a therapeutic situation.  Maggie is a non-shedding dog to begin with, but I like to think that we’re still doing what we can to keep the stray hairs to a minimum.  Earthbath doesn’t dry out her skin, which is always a concern with a dog who has more baths than most.  And – this is very important for a clinical or therapeutic setting – Earthbath has a clean, fresh scent that won’t trigger allergies or irritation. 

As a proud dog owner, I have to say that I love hearing the kids say ‘she’s so soft‘ when they’re showering Maggie with attention.  Sometimes it’s nice to hear that spending that extra half-hour on a bath before bed really did make a difference.

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We just had our final therapy dog visit for this session for the kids at the safe house, till the next term begins. Rocky, the golden doodle came along with us for the final visit. Because what can be better than one doddle visiting you… double the doodles! We went for a nice hike together after the visit to reward the girls on a well done visit and to reflect on what a wonderful time we all had.

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