By Cynthia J Hinckley
Do you enjoy volunteering and helping others? Are you looking for an activity to do with your sweet, friendly canine companion? The two of you might enjoy becoming a certified Therapy Dog Team and visiting folks in healthcare facilities or helping out in a school classroom or children’s reading program at a public library.
What makes a good therapy dog? Clearly, not every dog can be a therapy dog….. Sometimes, even the friendliest family pet doesn’t pass an evaluation to qualify for the job. So, what does one look for in a therapy dog? Your dog shows potential for becoming a therapy dog if you can answer NO to this question: Has your dog ever shown aggression toward a person of any age? And, YES to this question: Is your dog completely predictable? If you come up with the correct answers to these two questions, you move onto your dog’s controllability. While your dog is visiting, he/she must be completely under your control. Excellent manners are a must – like walking at your side on a loose leash (not pulling at the end of a 6’ leash and running down a long corridor, knocking over someone with a walker or a cane). Your dog must know the commands of: sit, stay, down, come, and leave it. No jumping up on people, no barking, and absolutely no “accidents.”
Controllability is all about training. As long as you have a non-aggressive dog that is predictable, you can work on training skills. Classes are great, if you have the time to attend them. A basic obedience class will go over the necessary skills that you can build on. Rally is a fun class to do with your dog. It incorporates all the basic skills going through a course that’s set up with various maneuvers. Recall class, Tricks, Agility – they’re all great at building upon the basic skills and developing a bonding relationship between you and your dog. Training should be incorporated in everything you do, all day long. Not isolated into “training time” for 20 minutes.
When you feel confident in your dog’s controllability, his/her predictability, and he/she, to the best of your knowledge, as never shown aggression to anyone, your dog is ready for a therapy dog evaluation. The evaluator will check for all of these things through temperament testing and asking you to perform the various obedience commands. In addition, and most important, the evaluator should be checking to see if the dog appears to be enjoying the visit. Dogs should not be timid, dragging and hiding behind you, or panting excessively. Dogs should be happy while visiting!
“Why do this?” you may ask. Imagine for a moment…. a child’s face lighting up as she finishes reading a book to her canine reading pal… a hospice patient opening his eyes, smiling, and extending a weary hand to pet his furry visitor who is lying beside him on his bed… a psychiatric patient seated next to his quiet canine listener speaking softly to him without fear of criticism or confrontation… These and many more are the simple joys witnessed visit after visit by our volunteers, facility and program staff, and family members of those receiving the visit from a certified therapy dog team. You will always feel that you have done something good when you leave a facility. It’s a wonderful feeling to observe the magical connection between humans and canines at work.
About Cynthia Hinckley
Cynthia J Hinckley believes in a strong commitment to community service by bringing comfort to those who need it most with visits from her Bright Spot therapy dogs. She makes weekly visits to hospice patients and residents in a nursing home and has been working with therapy dogs since 1992.
In 2004, Cynthia founded Bright Spot Therapy Dogs, Inc. a 501(c)3 non-profit organization to provide well-trained, certified therapy dog teams to the growing number of facilities and programs that recognize the benefits derived from the human-canine bond. You can learn more about Bright Spot Therapy Dogs, Inc. You can also follow Cynthia through her website about living and working with therapy dogs at Say Hello Spot.