This entry today is in response to a continuing question I receive, “How do you make your dog a therapy animal?” I understand the question, but first off we need to address some language in the question and then I will discuss what is needed to become a registered therapy animal and therapy animals in general.
This question would serve better with the language “How did you and your dog become a therapy animal team?” This might sound picky, but it is important to realize that neither my wife nor I 'made' or ‘make’ Gopher do this. We wanted to do this and hoped he would enjoy it, if at any time he did not want to do it, showed himself as disengaged or disinterested the work would stop. I cannot emphasize the importance of this enough; it is not a difference in levels of how rewarding or wonderful an individual experience may be, it is more black and white, the animal is engaged it works, the animal is not engaged it does not work.
The only way to find this out is to start training and be observant of the dog in the situation, so even after being trained and tested be prepared for it might not be the right fit, or be cognizant of what your dog likes. Gopher has a strong preference towards kids and senior citizens, so we go to places that allow him to play to his desires. With therapy animals present in anything from schools, libraries, psychiatric facilities, prisons, hospitals, group homes, the possibilities are nearly endless, so look for your animals desires, and if the first location does not work, try another, but also be prepared for the fact this work might not suit your animal. There is no solid barometer in determining this, but there are some telltale signs, some will be rooted out in evaluation, like spooks easily, others will become a judgment call, just look for the signs.
Another crucial element that I cannot stress enough is to do it the right way! Go through some training and be evaluated by Delta Society, TDI or another nationally registering organization. This is just as crucial as keeping an eye on your own animal to see if they enjoy the work. DO NOT EVER think, well Fluffy is such a good dog and she likes people I will just take her down to the nursing home to visit people, it’s no big deal. First and foremost, know that you are liable for any damages your animal may cause, Fluffy is walking on leash and the leash trips someone, you pay, or Fluffy knocks over IV tower damaging equipment attached and injuring the patient YOU ARE LIABLE. Finally and worst case Fluffy bites, you pay and in some areas Fluffy pays by being labeled a danger, or worse being destroyed. Testing and registering with an organization does not guarantee these things won’t happen, but what it does give you is insurance, so in the event there is an accident and someone trips over a leash, you are covered. It also gives you the ability to note that you are a Registered Animal Team and it will open more doors for you. Finally one of the most difficult parts of the human existence is the ability to look inward at a relationship and yourself. I had a neighbor once who insisted her little terrier was the sweetest dog there ever was, would not hurt anyone and actually loved people. I never once saw this dog not growling, barking, and snapping, she would just laugh at how cute this was. This animal would to anyone else obviously not be a candidate for this work, but she thought he would excel. He failed. We sometimes need that outside examination to allow us to see an error or a flaw. When people choose to just bring their dogs into a facility without doing the registrations and evaluations, they not only open themselves up to liability, but if things go poorly, they hurt the perception of therapy animals. This person obviously thinks the work is worthwhile, but out of laziness or failure to educate themselves, they can close a door to a facility in allowing therapy animals to visits. Take the time, educate yourself, pick the best fit for you and your animal, become registered, and present yourself appropriately since when you enter these facilities all eyes are on you and your animal.
Time commitment is high in doing therapy work, you must be at your scheduled visits facilities plan these around you and not being able to show up has a negative impact. After that as with all volunteer experiences it is what you make of it. Gopher is currently on track to go on up to three visits a week, which is three hours per week, without preparation and travel time. We are choosing this, some teams only visit once a month. It is entirely up to you.
Now you know there is training, testing, and a time commitment involved and it is time to add some new words or concepts to your repertoire. A therapy animal when working is not your pet, they are your partner and you form a team. You will both be participating in Animal Assisted Interactions (AAI) which is an umbrella term that covers Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) and Animal Assisted Activities (AAA). The majority of people fall into the AAA category, this is your general visits, rather it is doing a R.E.A.D. session in a library or visiting a nursing home or hospital. These visits have no specific goals and are done so on your own. AAT is more involved and requires the leadership of a staff member who is going to use and your partner to obtain a specific goal; this could be improved articulation of a partially paralyzed limb after a stroke, to improved reading ability in a school via the R.E.A.D. program.
Finally you have made it through training, passed your evaluation and received your identification card(s) in the mail for you and your partner, you have a new vocabulary, and you are sure you and your partner are ready to go, wait not so fast. There is more to be done.
Once you have everything in place it is time to select your facilities, and the type of work you will be attempting. If possible join a local therapy group that will help dramatically in facilitating this. If you are on your own you will need to contact a facility see if they are open to having a therapy animal team, and what their requirements are. If you are part of a group they will have most of this information available to you or could assist you in the process. Once you have selected a facility you and possibly your partner will need to go through their facilities paperwork, training and documentation. To put this into perspective, the end of October 2011 I will have attended over 40 hours of facility specific training, filled out and submitted 15 applications, read 10 manuals, 12 books, taken three exams and been evaluated, been screened and passed eight background checks and have had five mantoux readings (test to confirm no active tuberculosis), this is all after any training/ interviews/vet visits with Gopher. Once we were registered it took nearly three months before we could go on our first visit!
In the end the time and effort are well worth it. I and my partner are confident, competent and relaxed team that can handle a wide variety of circumstances. I have had an array of wonderful experiences only a handful of which have been documented on this blog. I would not trade one second of training, education or applications that we have completed to get to this point. In the end there are a number of resources available to find out about therapy work, so take your time, educate yourself, work and train with your partner and do it the right way even if you only want to visit once every other month YOU will make a difference, just make sure to represent yourself, your partner, and this work well. Gopher, Carla and I would be happy to answer any additional questions you may have. Our personal recommendations are Delta Society for registration, and if in the Twin Cities therapy classes under Carol Ouhl at Twin City Obedience Training Club.