Pet-assisted therapy has become more popular in recent years. There are a variety of types of pet-assisted therapy and venues in which to pursue it. In some facilities, therapy work is primarily an entertainment source and stress reliever for the patients, but in others patients are put to work in some fashion with the dogs. It is a commitment of time and emotional and physical energy to pursue therapy work with your dog, but the reward of helping others is its own payback.
The Right Dog for the Right Job
If you want to do therapy work with your dog, you’re going to need to do a little more than basic training. Depending on your dog’s energy level and personality, you may choose to engage in some therapy activities and avoid others. Some common forms of therapy include companion entertainment, motor-skill development, and reading assistance.
There are several organizations that test and certify therapy dogs. The Delta Society is probably the largest and most well known, followed by Therapy Dogs, Inc., and Therapy Dogs International, among others. Do your research, and decide which group’s policies, tests, and guidelines are the best fit for you and your dog’s capabilities.
In the first type, dogs are used primarily to help people feel better by virtue of their presence as something to pet, hug, and kiss. They may also provide entertainment by performing tricks or obedience skills, or by arriving at the facility dressed up in costumes. Some types of therapy involve the patient brushing or walking the dog, or throwing a toy for the dog to retrieve. One of the newest variations has kids with learning disabilities reading aloud to their nonjudgmental canine therapists.
The Down Side
As rewarding as therapy work is, it does have some potential drawbacks to consider before getting involved. The first is to remember that it is a commitment of at least several hours at least once a month. People are counting on you to show up; you can’t just do it when you feel like it. It’s not just showing up, letting some infirm people pet your dog, and going home. You have to keep up with your dog’s training, and ideally continue teaching her new things so she’s both comfortable and comforting. You’ll have to bathe your dog and clip and file her nails before each visit.
The biggest toll to doing therapy work is often an emotional one. Therapy work can be extremely stressful and sad for both you and your dog. Being realistic with yourself about what you can handle and what your dog will both be good at and enjoy is an important step in guiding you to the right type of therapy work to pursue. While you’re being realistic, be realistic about your dog. Some dogs just aren’t cut out to be therapy dogs. Of course, safety — of the patients, your dog, and yourself — always has to be the first priority. And don’t forget that you’re doing this as an activity to enjoy. A dog that is shy or afraid of strangers isn’t going to enjoy the experience, no matter how well trained she is, so you may have to consider other outlets for your philanthropic efforts if therapy work isn’t right for your dog.