When one of the Boys are walking through the hospital with me, people often ask –
What makes a good therapy dog?
If you Googled that question, you would see a variety of definitions/explanations that read like this:
A therapy dog must be friendly, even-tempered, consistent, gentle, confident, comfortable meeting new people, and reliable in unusual environments. Above all, they must love people and truly enjoy being around them while being hugged, kissed and petted.Canidae
And as a Therapy Dog Program Coordinator for a large University Hospital – I concur.
Therapy dog candidates should also demonstrate enormous patience with those strangers and tolerate other animals. They are generally very intuitive.
A strong connection to their owners is paramount. This becomes visible with their relentless desire to please. I find this to be true with both Harley and Jaxson.
It goes without saying, what makes a good therapy dog is basic obedience, good manners, a love for people of all ages, and the ability to ignore other dogs.
When asked about training, I always tell people – much depends on the dog.
Some volunteers opt to have their dog participate in formal classes such as CGC (Canine Good Citizen) prior to testing for therapy dog certification.
While this is always a plus, it is not mandatory. Many owners obedience train their pups themselves. Others have sought out assistance from therapy dog training classes.
There are currently 84 therapy dogs in the program I coordinate.
The State of South Carolina does not have any breed restrictions therefore as a State hospital I cannot restrict a dog based solely on breed.
We have many Retrievers and a variety of Doodles. One Great Pyrenees and a couple of Bernese Mountain Dogs. Six Newfoundlands and two Vizsla’s.
Brodie the Siberian Husky does wonders in Psychiatry and Kia the Malamute
howls serenades the staff at the Children’s Outpatient Clinic.
An array of small breeds – excel in the Cancer Centers and Infusion Clinics because they fit/sit nicely in the patients lap. Maltese, Shih Tzu’s, Beagles, Poodles, Havanese, Dachshund, Pomeranians, Yorkshire Terriers, Chihuahuas, and a Rough Collie named “Humphrey Bogart.” #Ikidyounot
We currently have a ten year old Blue Pit Bull Mix – a true gentle giant who volunteers throughout the city of Charleston and has become somewhat of a local celebrity as an ambassador for the breed.
With all the therapy teams I observe and accept into the program, what seems to stand out the most – to me – is the obvious connection at the two ends of the leash.
Harley has been volunteering with both adults and children for more than 8 years now…
Dozens of times he has demonstrated his abilities to “read” people, and understand when I want him to remain with a patient. Especially when that patient needs special attention.
In his therapy career, I have asked Harley to –
- ride the gurney into the pre-op with a child holding onto his tail fearing the unknown.
- lay across a patients chest to sooth a seizure
- remain still in the grips of a woman who’s been told her cancer is terminal
He does these things – – – for me.
Because I understand this, I make sure I remain vigilant as his advocate. I am extremely protective over his hours. I am in charge of his balance.
HOW TO GET STARTED –
If you are interested in becoming a therapy dog volunteer team –
- socialize your puppy or dog to new people, places, objects and surfaces.
- Watch your dog closely and evaluate his/her true temperament.
- Study whether or not he/she really enjoys affection from strangers.
If you are going to train him/her yourself – research and understand the necessary behaviors associated with therapy work, such as –
- leave it
- loose leash walking
- not jumping on people
- no licking whatsoever
The American Kennel Club provides excellent resources on Tips For How To Train A Therapy Dog.
WHAT ABOUT YOU? –
Is becoming a therapy dog handler something you want to do?
It’s a wonderful way to give back to your community, as well as develop an even deeper, purposeful bond with your pup. It will lead to so many new experiences…
Sharing your dog brings an enormous sense of self worth. It has been known to improve ones mental and physical health as well.
I strongly encourage you to join therapy dog organizations, meet like minded people who share this same passion. Find a seasoned handler to mentor you. If you’re open to new adventures, sign up to visit schools, nursing homes, veteran organizations. Search for the “true match” that satisfies both you and your new therapy dog.
If I can help you – in any way – please don’t hesitate to reach out.
The best therapists have paws and a tail ❤️