All About Therapy Dogs
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All About Therapy Dogs

Dogs
Health & Safety

Does your pet have what it takes to become a therapy dog? These exceptional animals bring comfort and happiness to people with a range of disabilities and emotional needs, including those in nursing homes, rehab facilities, hospices, special needs schools and more. Many owners find themselves asking whether their pet has what it takes to work with vulnerable people, and provide those at risk of depression and alienation with a new lease on life. This article will explore the uses of therapy dogs, and explain the behavioural and temperamental criteria required of pets in these roles.

History of therapy dogs

Dogs have been providing love and reassurance to their owners for centuries. For as long as dogs have been domesticated, there has been evidence of their natural healing abilities over the physically and emotionally convalescent. The first therapeutic use of dogs can be traced back to ancient Greece, when dogs were employed to lick the wounds of injured human patients. In the 1700s, Quakers brought dogs to some of the earliest treatment centres for the mentally unstable, allowing patients to raise and tend to pets in order to rebuild their social skills. Later in Europe, Florence Nightingale herself developed early theories on the use of animals in therapy, acknowledging their unique power to heal. Through World War II and into the modern era, the training and procurement of therapy dogs has been taken on with a more organised, formal approach. One pioneer of contemporary animal therapy was Nancy Stanley, who in the 1970s helped spark current demand for therapy dogs across the world. Since then, several studies have been carried out proving that interaction with dogs increases levels of neurotransmitters associated with happiness and bonding, while reducing chemicals associated with distress.

Essential traits for therapy dogs

Though therapy dogs are used for a variety of different purposes and in different settings, all must possess certain traits. Any breed of dog can be used for therapeutic purposes, so long as he or she has the right temperament. For the safety of the dog and patient, all therapy animals must be very patient and respond to commands regardless of any distracting environmental stimuli. Other essential behaviours include:

  • Exceptional tolerance of handling by strangers
  • No sensitivity to rough stroking or petting
  • Excellent obedience levels
  • The ability to walk on the lead without pulling
  • Tolerance of unusual smells and sites, such as wheelchairs, medical devices
  • No fear of unsteady movement in humans
  • A calm disposition
  • Docility
  • Tolerance of other animals
  • Complete lack of food or toy aggression and guarding behaviours

As you can see, therapy dogs must be exceptionally well behaved and reliable, which may put young dogs less than one year of age out of the running. Therapy dogs must never jump on or even paw at humans, as this can cause fearful reactions in vulnerable patients. They should be groomed regularly, and have annual check-ups at the vet to ensure a clean bill of health.

Essential traits for therapy dog handlers

No one knows a dog like its owner; therefore, the handler, too, must be suitable for the role. Therapy providers or registries will assess the skill of the owner when it comes to detecting stress and handling their pet. Any snapping or jerking of the lead to get a dog’s attention will be regarded negatively! It’s up to the owner of the therapy dog to know what environment their pet performs well in, and to understand any underlying fears or stress.

Procedures for becoming a therapy dog

The exact criterion for becoming a therapy dog varies by organisation purpose and type, and may entail a detailed assessment of suitability. Most charities or hospitals will require proof off full inoculation and parasite prevention, which may also include fecal testing. Some ask owners of prospective therapy dogs to obtain a veterinary or professional reference as proof that their dog has right temperament for the role, while others will conduct their own trials and investigations. Owners may be required to apply for a CRB check and take a relevant training course. Dogs that make it through the initial selection phase will usually be supervised on their first trips out in the field. There may be a fee payable in order to register with a charity or group accrediting pet therapy visits.

What happens during a therapy visit?

Patients are typically invited to stroke and cuddle the therapy dog, interacting with him or her in whatever way they are most comfortable. Not all patients will want to handle the dog - some will benefit just from watching a happy pet play with others. Smaller breeds may be carried or picked up and sit in the lap of patients, while physically able patients may play fetch or throw toys for the dog. The objective of therapy is to help patients relieve stress and tension associated with their conditions, even just for a short time. Dogs are not required to know tricks, but some owners train their dog basic commands like “shake” or “roll-over” to entertain patients. In the course of their work, dogs may be stroked roughly, hugged, or have their paws and tails manipulated.

Other ways you can help

Even if you don’t have a dog or aren’t sure your pet is suitable, you can still get involved in this rewarding, important work. Donating your time and helping to assess suitable dogs is a great way to help promote animal therapy initiatives. You can also plan fundraisers to raise awareness and funds in support of these crucial programmes.

Getting certified

The two main groups that certify therapy pets in the UK are Pets as Therapy and Therapet (Scotland). These groups also act to help owners find local placements for pets upon successful certification. Alternatively, you can also contact your local hospital, special needs school or nursing home to see if they have their own animal therapy programme. Different organisations have varying requirements and it’s worth checking up on what they are before you enroll in a particular course.

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