Therapy Pets: Everyday Heroes!

By Teresa Garden, DVM

Have you ever considered if your pet dog could be a therapy dog? Therapy dogs or “visiting pet programs” have been around since the 1980s. These are programs in which animals help people just by visiting with them. The benefits to the people they visit are vast and far reaching. A visiting furry friend can decrease lonliness and depression in our elderly residents of nursing homes or hospitals. Therapy pets can decrease blood pressure in heart failure patients. Studies have shown decreases in cholesterol and triglycerides as another health benefit. Visiting pets can decrease the need for pain medications especially in children. They can be a form of entertainment, a distraction from pain and infirmity, and an incentive for conversation and socialization. Patients suffering from autism, chronic disease, dementia, mental disorders, and neurological disorders can all benefit from pet therapy visits. A visiting pet can encourage a patient to get more exercise. Simply stretching and turning to pet the animal can help. Positive effects of visiting pets have been documented in most age groups. Children seem to derive the most benefit. Visiting pets are not limited to just dogs. Cats, guinea pigs, birds, and rabbits have all been used successfully for this purpose as well. These pets have been welcomed into assisted living facilities, hospitals, nursing homes, rehab units, schools, and libraries.

What are the personality traits desirable in a visiting pet? Therapy pets must be comfortable with people of all ages, sizes, cultures, and races. They must remain calm in busy and noisy environments. They must be relaxed, friendly, and able to walk on a loose leash. These special care givers have to be comfortable being handled and groomed by strangers and interacting in general with strangers. A therapy pet must be forgiving of both accidental and intentional pain that may be inflicted. The pet must not retaliate. (It is the handler’s responsibility to prevent any injury to the pet.) Dogs must be trained to not sniff, jump, lick, or paw at people. These pets must be comfortable being touched on all parts of their body.

Does your dog have what it takes to be a therapy dog? Your dog may not have all the traits at the present time but that does not mean he could not acquire them in the future. You can help your dog get ready by implementing the following three steps. First, allow your dog to grow up and become fully mature. Dogs need to be fully mature emotionally to learn good manners and basic obedience skills. Second, enter and successfully complete the AKC Canine Good Citizen Program (CGC). This is a great starting point for all potential therapy/visiting dogs. The dog must not show fear, aggression, or excessive activity. The dog is required to sit, lie down, come, and stay on command. For more information on CGC visit the website akc.org. After successfully completing the CGC program, you and your wonderful dog can move on to step 3.

Joining a local dog therapy organization is next on your list. This allows you to meet experienced therapy dog handlers. They can teach you the skills needed when volunteering. Local groups can provide you with liability insurance through their national organization. They will help to arrange visits for you and your dog. Your dog will also have to pass their evaluation and certification process. The evaluation encompasses both physical health and behavior. Your dog must be shown to be healthy, free of parasites and contagious disease, and up to date on vaccines. Your dog’s behavior will be tested to see how he responds to loud noises, food, wheelchairs, and stumbling or lurching gaits of people. The cost of testing and certification may vary from “free” to over $100. “Free” certifications may be offered by a local group in exchange for a certain number of volunteer visits in a specified time period.

The local group you choose to work with can help “match” your dog with the type of visit or activity for which he is best suited based on personality traits and behavior. Some dogs are better with seniors, some with children. Some dogs enjoy performing tricks and entertaining a whole group at a senior daycare facility or nursing home. Some therapy dogs prefer just quietly and lovingly snuggling with one individual patient in a hospital or convalescing home. It is important for the therapy dog to enjoy his visit just as much as those he is visiting.

Remember, any dog could be a potential therapy dog. Any breed large or small is welcome. They can be purebred or mixes and of both sexes. At my practice alone we have generous and loving clients spreading joy with their Labs, Retrievers, Pomeranians, Shih Tzus, a Miniature Pinscher, and various mixes. Hearing their wonderful stories confirms that pet therapy is as nourishing and fun for the dog and handler as it is for the patient. For more information please contact our local chapter of Love on a Leash or consider reading the book Love on a Leash: Giving Joy to Others through Pet Therapy by Liz Plaika.

Dr. Teresa Garden is chief veterinarian/owner of Animal Health & Healing, a full-service holistic and conventional veterinary practice in the Maplewood/Richmond Heights area. 314-781-1738. www.AnimalHealthandHealing.com.