So, You Want a Therapy Dog?

If you saw our Wordless Wednesday post this past week, you saw Perri laying on a blanket in front of a library shelf full of books.  This was a dream come true for me.  This was Perri’s very first night at work as a therapy dog.

When Perri came along, it was like I finally found a candidate for a “job” that I had been wanting to fill for many years.  I wanted Ein (my socially anxious corgi) to be a therapy dog.  We even had someone interested in using him for comforting neurologically damaged patients.  I wanted Molly (my 400mph pitbull) to be a therapy dog, too.  Since Ein, especially in his early years, became a shuddering mess of anxiety around large groups of humans – he was out.  Molly loves humans and being snuggled but she is also very high energy and we are still working on our years long process of getting her to keep “four on the floor” and her head out of the clouds.*  Perri is naturally gentle and polite.  She approaches me and others with excitement, but will be happy to give a gentle hand lick or bow her head on a chest and have her sides patted.  Of course she has her normal dog moments, that is what training is for, but as therapy dogs go – Perri is a “natural”.
[*I do want to point out that many “pitbull type” dogs are working in dog therapy and do an excellent job at it!  In fact, a few of the famous “Vick-tory” pitbulls have gone on to therapy work.]

My first step with Perri was to take her to Obedience Class.  Obedience classes are an excellent way to provide all dogs (not just therapy dogs!) with foundation skills for being polite in public and to socialize them with other dogs and people.  This means that Perri could practice learning her basic commands of “sit”, “lay down” and “stay” while learning to work with me in a controlled group of the “general public”.

My second step was to get Perri her AKC Canine Good Citizen certification (the “CGC”).  In order to earn this certification Perri and I had to be tested by an evaluator on “10 skills needed by all well mannered dogs.” – such as Sitting Politely for Petting, Supervised 3-Minute Separation, and Coming When Called.
Perri really breezed right through this test and had her certification.  Just like that.  Easy Peasy.  Like I said, she’s a natural where being a social dog is concerned.
That is not always the case and that is okay!  Molly has also become CGC certified and we took a class for it with a local trainer and that was very beneficial.  The AKC website concerning the CGC has resources for locating both a class and an evaluator.
And Ein?  Ein has failed the test twice.  Every dog is different, and Ein is not yet able to allow some evaluator to brush him just yet.  The audacity!
[For the story of Kelsey’s Lucy passing the Canine Good Citizen test please check out her July 2012 post, Normal Ain’t Easy.]


The third step was the most difficult for me, Choosing a Therapy Dog Organization.  There are…a lot to choose from and that was slightly overwhelming.  I ended up choosing Therapy Dogs Incorporated.  TDInc is one of the more well known groups and there were plenty of local resources for testing*.
Becoming certified by a therapy dog organization was a must for me.  It provides a support network of like minded and experienced people, credentials to be handed over to facilities in which you and your dog will be working, and liability insurance coverage for dog/handler teams.
Perri and I needed a “tester/observer” – a person entrusted by TDInc to perform a behavioral test on the dog as well as the required three “observation visits”.
Our test consisted of basic manners: sitting and staying for petting, loose leash walking, reaction to medical equipment and a person behaving abnormally.  This test is then followed by three or four “observation visits”, and that is something that made me love TDInc.
My daily work is taking x-rays in a hospital, so I am no stranger to being around patients and people who are sick.  But when it came to taking my dog into a strange environment to cheer people up, I was feeling a little insecure.  I was grateful that instead of being tested and done, that TDInc offers more support for their new teams by requiring the tester/observer to accompany the dog/handler team’s first few visits under watch of an experienced eye before the team can become certified.
[*If Therapy Dogs Incorporated is something that you are interested in, the “How to Become a Member” section on their website contains all necessary information – with Tester/Observers searchable by state at the bottom of this section.]

And finally, I had to decide what type of therapy Perri would be best for.  There are so many options.  Nursing homes, hospice, rehab therapy, reading therapy.  Therapy dogs are being used to comfort emergency workers in crisis situation.  They are used to cheer students up in college who are studying for their final exams.  There are groups of people who take their dogs for therapy visits all together.  The list goes on and on.  There is no end to the list of people who can benefit from the simple comfort of having a dog to pet.
I know that I want to take Perri to nursing homes in time.  Since Perri can be an insecure dog, she is still a bit intimidated by wheelchairs and loud alarms and all of that normal background noise of a nursing home.  She is not debilitated, she just needs time to build confidence and work through.
With Perri’s calm and polite disposition, an area where I thought that she could really shine is with dog assisted reading therapy.  The idea is simple, and genius.  Children read books to dogs – dogs who don’t judge them and who help them relax – and it improves their learning progress and enjoyment of reading.
I knew that my local library had such a program and so I asked if they knew of anywhere else that was looking for a reading therapy dog.  By coincidence, the library was in need of a new reading therapy dog!  One thing led to another and Perri had her first “job” as a newly certified therapy dog.  She gazed at the children while they read to her.  She laid her head in their laps while they played with her curls.  She rolled belly up and her ear flopped open – “the better to hear you with, m’dear.”  Perri has found her calling, and my years long dream had come true.


Perri is also an official “Agility NQ Comfort Dog” for me at Molly’s agility trials!