Animal Jobs Series: Therapy DogsPublished December 15, 2008
A canine companion is a valued member of the family. Some of these wonderful dogs take their warm, wonderful personalities beyond the front yard and give to their community as therapy dogs.To every dog-owning household, a canine companion is a valued member of the family, simultaneously dependent and generously loving. Some of those wonderful dogs take their warm, wonderful personalities beyond the front yard and give to their community as therapy dogs.
These dogs are welcomed guests at institutions and private homes when they are invited to share their most valued traits: calm, affection, tactile stimulation, motivation, physical and emotional interaction, to name a few. To understand what a therapy dog is, it is often helpful to start off defining what a therapy dog is not. Therapy dogs are not service dogs.
Service animals, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (Federal Code of Regulations, 1990) are "animals that are individually trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities such as guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling wheelchairs, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, or performing other special tasks. Service animals are working animals, not pets."
Therapy animals, in contrast, are not legally defined by federal law. Therapy animals do provide a valuable benefit to others, but they are usually the personal pets of their owners and handlers, and work with their handlers when acting in a supportive (emotional, mental, physical) capacity with another person. Therapy animals are not exempt from health regulations that deny animals entrance into certain environments (schools, restaurants, markets), whereas service animals are absolutely permitted.
To become a therapy dog, there is a certification process that establishes both the dog's qualifications and the owner's commitment to working as volunteering partners in their community. Therapy Dogs International, Inc. (TDI), a volunteer organization, regulates, tests and registers therapy dogs and their handlers, qualifying both to visit nursing homes, hospitals and wherever therapy dogs are needed and welcomed. TDI sets forth a typical standard for membership, where all dogs must be tested and evaluated by a Certified TDI evaluator.
Additionally, a dog "must be a minimum of one (1) year of age and have a sound temperament. Each dog must pass the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen Test (CGC), and a temperament evaluation for suitability to become a Therapy Dog. The test will also include the evaluation of the dog's behavior around people with the use of some type of service equipment (wheelchairs, crutches, etc.)."
The American Kennel Club's CGC program is a certification program that evaluates basic good manners for dogs through a 10-step test. After passing the test, dogs receive a certificate from the AKC. In addition to passing the tests and evaluations, the TDI also requires a clean bill of health, established through their Health Record Form, to be completed and signed by a licensed veterinarian.
If it seems like a lot of fuss just to permit a dog to sit beside a patient with Alzheimer's and be pet, the truth is that the process is really designed to minimize risk to the patient or recipient of the dog's affection as well as to the dog itself. A therapy dog that disrupts, damages, intimidates, actually harms an individual or destroys property is of no benefit to the audience they aim to work with.
Often intended to introduce much needed calm and tranquility, it is of the utmost importance that a dog has the right temperament and training to be a therapy animal, just as bedside manner and knowledge are critical to a doctor's success in treating a patient. The reality is that hospitals and nursing homes have a lot of extra stimulation that dogs are particularly sensitive to (smells and sounds are the most obvious) and that can result in anxiety in a dog that is normally very calm.
People with handicaps and young children can make spontaneous movements that can startle a dog, producing a response you might not have been able to predict.
To senior citizens, young children, and people with a wide range of emotional, physical or mental challenges, a qualified therapy dog can bring a great deal of peace to a difficult or lonely afternoon, and even progress within a larger course of treatment. Ideally, the work will be rewarding and fun for the dog as well.
Therapy dogs provide individuals, young and old, with much-needed kindness and comfort that can make a difference on a physiological level. If you think your dog is not cut out for a life of therapy work, take heart. Just sitting with a dog has valuable health benefits. An article published in the International Journal of Psychology (2004) revealed the results of a test measuring the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy for relieving anxiety during a standardized laboratory stressor task - having to do math.
The researchers found that "the beneficial effect of therapy dogs on anxiety is robust." So even if your dog cannot serve your community as a therapy dog, and even if you don't panic at the thought of long division, there is no question that you are still benefiting from daily doses of invaluable treatment at the hands, or paws of your pet.