All mixes and breeds of canine companions can become valuable therapy pets.
The physical therapist who worked with Mr. Jones in an assisted living facility was frustrated. No matter what she tried, Mr. Jones refused to get out of his recliner and walk every day despite the doctor’s orders for daily physical activity. That is, until “Beauty,” a Golden Retriever, showed up with her volunteer handler. Suddenly, Mr. Jones was out of his chair and eagerly waiting to take this special dog for a walk.
After a stroke, Sandra was in a treatment center where she needed to do occupational therapy exercises to open her right hand. The very first sign of progress came when Sandra struggled and with great determination opened her fingers so she could hold a brush and brush “Laddie,” a patiently waiting Collie.
The dogs in these scenarios are therapy dogs, specially trained dogs who volunteer with their owners to help others in nursing homes, schools, assisted living facilities, hospitals, rehabilitation units and other settings.
The healing power of pets has been documented for centuries, but animal-assisted therapy has become much more sophisticated in the last 30 years. Animal therapy has been found to be helpful in managing a wide variety of conditions including autism, chronic diseases, dementia, mental disorders and neurological disorders such as epilepsy. For example, a UCLA study published in the American Journal of Critical Care found that therapy animals can help lower blood pressure, increase neurohormone levels and help reduce anxiety for patients who have been hospitalized with heart failure. With therapy dogs in every state, and all breeds and mixes represented, this field has grown exponentially since the first therapy dog organizations began in the 1980s.
If you think your dog has what it takes to become a therapy dog who can make a difference in the lives of others, here’s how you begin:
Because all therapy dogs need to be under control, basic training is the first step to becoming a therapy dog. The American Kennel Club’s (AKC) Canine Good Citizen (CGC) Test is a great starting point for all potential therapy dogs because in CGC training your dog will learn basic good manners including come, sit, stay, down, and how to respond appropriately around other dogs. You can find more information on this test, including how to find an instructor, on the AKC website, akc.org.
Do your homework about therapy dog organizations
By joining a local therapy dog group, you’ll be able to meet experienced therapy dog handlers who can teach you the skills that you need when volunteering in therapy settings. Therapy organizations also provide members with the necessary liability insurance for volunteering.
If you want to get started in therapy work, you can also contact a local facility. If you are thinking about volunteering in a particular school, hospital, etc. in your area, call and ask to speak with the volunteer coordinator and ask them if there is a therapy dog program. You might find out that the therapy dog group at the facility you choose registers all of its therapy dogs through one organization. You can save time if you know this early on. You could also ask if you can visit without your dog and watch the therapy dogs work before your dog is registered with a group.
Register with a therapy organization
Now that you have selected a therapy dog organization, you’re ready to get the application and complete the application requirements. The therapy dog organization with which you’ve registered will provide additional training and assignment to a facility. Once you’ve successfully trained and registered your dog with a therapy organization, it will be ready embark upon a life of therapy service.
Mary Burch, Ph.D., is the Director of the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen and Therapy Dog programs. She has written two books and won awards for her articles about animal assisted therapy. Burch’s Border Collie was a Delta Society Therapy Animal of the Year.