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Could Your Dog Become a Therapy Dog?

Ace the therapy dog's tail wagging - therapy dog's tail always wagged

Ace the therapy dog’s tail wagged whenever he visited patients at the hospital. (Photo by Rod Griola)

When therapy dogs visit with people who are sick, grieving or stressed, the mood of the whole room changes. It’s as if the sun came out from behind a cloud. As a certified therapy-dog handler in a hospice program, I saw dying patients and their family members reminisce about their dogs and laugh together. Therapy dogs are great icebreakers and a nice distraction, but they have physiological benefits, too. Studies show that patients’ blood pressure and heart rates decrease in the presence of a dog, and they just feel better! (Any dog lover could tell you that!)

Any dog can become a certified therapy dog. Every breed is represented, from teacup poodles to great Danes, but temperament is key. Ask yourself if your dog can abide by these simple rules. If not, you can still volunteer, but Kujo stays at home.

  • Four on the Floor – Therapy dogs work with very frail patients. If the dog can’t keep his paws to himself, he’s not cut out to be a therapy dog. A jumping dog could knock a patient down.
  • Would He Mug an Old Lady for Her Tennis Ball? – It sounds absurd, but many patients put tennis balls on the feet of their walkers to make them slide on hard floors. Dogs must be able to walk past a tennis ball without issue. Sometimes during evaluations they even put a treat in a tennis ball then attach it to a walker! Double trouble!
  • Scaredy-Dogs – Medical equipment including canes, walkers, wheel chairs, hospital beds and oxygen tanks are strange for most dogs, but many dogs can adjust. In our evaluation they dropped a metal bed pan on the floor behind Ace to see how he’d react. (He wasn’t a fan, but he didn’t tear my arm off or anything!) Is your dog comfortable around this equipment?
  • Plays Well With Others – Sometimes more than one dog is required at an event or a visit. You may find yourself sharing an elevator with another dog/handler team. Your dog must behave when he’s nose to nose with another dog, and he has to know when it’s work time and when it’s play time. A game of “who’s alpha now” isn’t appropriate in the workplace.
  • Leave It! – Therapy dogs may encounter pills or bodily fluids (ick!) on the floor in a hospital or nursing home. It’s not only nasty, but ingesting medicines can be fatal. Dogs have to be able to walk past a meat treat (or in my dog, Ace’s case, cheese! He ate a lot of cheese while we trained for this one!) and not pick it up in order to pass the test.
  • Who Walks Whom? – How does your dog do on a leash? Does he drag you into the next county or is the leash loose? Therapy dogs have to wait patiently and stick close to the handler. Wanna-be sled dogs shouldn’t quit their day jobs.
  • What a Sweet Pea! – Finally, does your dog make people happy? Is he sociable and sweet? Does he like to be patted and stroked? Dogs who growl at people (and that includes “just the mail man”) aren’t ready for therapy work.

If your dog is ready to pass the therapy-dog evaluation, consider contacting Therapy Dogs International or Delta Society. Both are national organizations that evaluate and insure therapy dogs and help handlers find volunteer opportunities.