With Sophie and Elvis receiving their Therapy Dog (THD) titles from the American Kennel Club (AKC), it has raised some interest in therapy dog work, so I thought I’d post an article describing a little of what’s involved.
The therapy dog does the real work and it’s the handler’s job to be the dog’s advocate, particularly in keeping them from becoming stressed, and attending to their needs. The dog’s welfare always comes first, therefore the handler must be attuned to any sign that the dog may be giving: whether it needs water, is uncomfortable, stressed, restless, whatever. Being the dog’s advocate also means not pushing them too hard with either the number of visits or the length of visits; the recommendation is to keep visits under two hours.
Even though the dog comes first, the handler must never forget that those being visited are already suffering, perhaps physically, emotionally, or mentally; otherwise they wouldn’t need therapy visits. Due to the regulations and responsibilities involved with this type of service, both the handler and dog undergo training, testing, and are certified.
Visits are not counted by the number of individuals who are visited, but rather the number of visits made to facilities which for Sophie and Elvis, took just over two years to accumulate enough visits to qualify for their titles. Although the number of facilities and clients may be logged and reported, it’s not intended for the dog to earn a title or award, but rather reporting purposes for the service organization that the handler and dog represent.
The first step in becoming certified as a therapy dog is to become CGC (Canine Good Companion) certified. Dogs are evaluated by a CGC evaluator and if they pass the evaluation, are eligible for testing as a therapy dog. Different organizations have different test criteria which can include: basic obedience; walking on a loose leash; negotiating crowds; response to sudden noises; and negotiating wheel chairs, walkers, canes, beds and so forth. They’re tested in areas that they’ll likely encounter during their visits.
Since dogs are highly sensitive to the feelings of others, visits can be stressful and drain the dog emotionally. Organizations involved in therapy animals will have guidelines that if followed, helps prevent the dog from becoming overwhelmed, and in time, burned out from their therapy work. Again, the dog’s welfare comes first.
As for visits, mine are not timed –as much as possible that is. I give each client the amount of time they want to spend with my dogs. Special circumstances such as a hospice visit or a visit with family members present may be much longer, but I will also give my dog a break. I never take Sophie or Elvis for a full day of visiting, rather I take one dog on the morning visits and the other on afternoon visits. I also limit my visits to monthly unless otherwise requested.
The READ program
The R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) program is an additional certification in which therapy dogs are used to help children learn to read. Dogs involved in the R.E.A.D. program require three certifications: CGC, THD, and R.E.A.D. This has been found to be a very effective type of therapy since dogs possess qualities that we humans don’t seem to have, even with our best intentions.
R.E.A.D. programs have adopted by schools, libraries, and other settings. These programs have not only been shown to improve children’s literacy and communication skills, but studies have shown that children of R.E.A.D. programs improve in other subjects, their school attendance improves, and even personal hygiene improves.
So hopefully this has shed a little light on the important role that therapy and R.E.A.D dogs play in the lives of those who need their companionship. Hopefully it garners just a little more appreciation for their service, should you see a dog at work. And hopefully it will encourage others to participate in this type of service, whether you have a dog like Sophie who has retired from hunting and needs a retirement job, or Elvis who is still in his prime and is a natural at it.