At our house, the dogs are right in on the family holiday festivities. They love being part of the fun. Just another way of building the bond between you and your dogs.
I get to meet a lot of really nice people – and dogs – as a therapy dog evaluator for Bright Spot Therapy Dogs, Inc. It was actually years before I founded Bright Spot – while I was the volunteer coordinator for the MSPCA’s Pet Visitation Program back in 1997 – that I met Denise. Denise is not just a doglover – she has lots of different animals and, of course, several dogs. Aside from doing therapy dog visiting with one of her dogs, she trains dogs to be seeing-eye dogs. Denise had come to me to have one of her dogs evaluated to be a therapy dog. I knew right away that she was a very caring person; loving animals and caring deeply for people. As I got to know Denise, I found out that on Christmas Day, she would leave her family at home and go to the nursing home she visited on a regular basis – to make a special visit to everyone there on a day that might not be so special for them being away from friends and family. I was concerned that they might not have any visitors on Christmas and they love seeing the dog, she told me. Denise has moved away from the area and is now living in New Jersey – living on a mini-farm perfect for her animals. I have no doubt she is doing many kindnesses for both animals and people in her new hometown – and will be remembering those in need on Christmas Day.
On Thursdays, James and I head to the nursing home just 7 minutes from our house. Since he had an off day with his hospice visiting yesterday, I was especially watchful of him – both while brushing him for his visiting and when we first arrived. But, within minutes, I knew he was himself again. Down the hall he headed and into the physical therapy room to make the rounds of the folks there. Then, with two of the physical therapists, James and I headed upsides to the Alzheimer’s Unit to work with Constance who continues to spend most of her time in bed. As soon as she saw James come into her room, she grabbed for his leash and said, Can I take him for a walk? The physical therapists carefully guided her to her feet and with her walker – James’ leash in one hand – the four of us walked all the way down to the end of the corridor and back. All the while, Constance was grinning and saying, He likes me! I love him! He’s so beautiful! We then lead her to a comfortable chair in the gathering area outside the nurses’ station where she sat and James sat next to her…. all the while she was grinning… she then turned to the woman sitting next to her and said, See my dog? He likes me! The woman replied, He’s so good. What’s his name? Grinning, Constance replied, James. I love him! At this point, the two therapists were in tears… Constance had refused all week to walk the corridor with them to get exercise and had spoken very little. They left me with Constance and James and I stayed and talked with her for quite awhile. Another very special visit. It’s hard to break away when such magic is occurring… We will be back soon.
On Wednesdays, James and I visit hospice patients. We are currently visiting two patients who are both in the same healthcare facility. Our visits always leave me glad that I made the 56-mile round trip to get there and back. When leaving, you know, without a doubt, that you have brightened that person’s day. How could I not feel good about that – no matter how far I had driven?
Today was an off day for James. He has them – rarely – but they do occur. He was excited as we prepared for the visit – he gets a thorough brushing and I suit him up in his therapy dog vest and ID badge. He was set-to-go and jumped in the car. No problems there….. had there been at this point, I would have called off the visit. Anyway, on we went. He was greeted by several residents as we made our way through the lobby. We arrived at our first patient’s room and he simply didn’t engage – she was in bed today, rather then sitting in her chair, so I directed him to lie down along side her on the bed (he’s done this before with her). He kept fidgeting, changing position. Just not settling down. The patient said, James is restless today! I then directed him to get off the bed and he quietly lay down on the floor. He assumed a relaxed position – and the patient started to direct her conversation to me. Again, had he not been fine settling down on the floor by my feet, we would have left. Your dog comes first – always. Never force a visit. In the end, we had a patient who was happy that we stopped by – and James found himself a spot that satisfied him while a short visit ensued. We then headed to the second patient and the same scenario occurred. This time he sat looking out the window (wooded surroundings – possibility of seeing a bird or a squirrel!), I chatted for a short while and we said our good-byes.
If only they could talk… I don’t feel that James was ill in anyway. I think he was just having an off day – and because he loves his visiting opportunities, I don’t want to force him into anything and have him start to balk at going. Read your dog’s signs… if he could talk, what would he be telling you?
Having your dog certified as a therapy dog through a registered therapy dog organization holds special benefits for the dog’s owner. The prime benefit that comes with membership in an organization is volunteer liability insurance. When I started visiting with my first certified therapy dog back in 1992, very few dogs were allowed in facilities of any type. But, if dogs were allowed to visit back then, that meant any dog – certified or not. Things have changed a lot in 18 years… on the plus side, the positive effects therapy dogs have on folks in healthcare facilities and educational programs have been recognized and appreciated, on the negative side, lawsuits of all types have increased causing concerns about liability to develop. When speaking to an insurance broker, I was informed that anything to do with dogs is ranked #2 on the risk factor; risk of fire being #1. Facilities and programs are conscious of this situation and most require that a visiting dog be certified through a registered therapy dog organization and carry liability insurance through that organization.
Beyond this, belonging to a local or national therapy dog organization will offer additional benefits. Bright Spot Therapy Dogs, Inc. offers a very generous membership package including: liability insurance, official Bright Spot dog vest, T-shirt, ID badges for the dog and owner, membership handbook, list of visiting opportunities, monthly members e-newsletter, and the annual Bright Spot News, as well as member support. Check with your local or national therapy dog organizations to find out what benefits they offer – but of utmost importance, be certain that membership includes liability insurance. You are responsible for your dog – if there is an incident, it is you who will be sued. Don’t take chances!
The answer to this question is more complex then you might expect. People come to me all excited. They’ve read about the volunteer therapy dog program at the hospital and want to visit there with their dog. Or they want to visit hospice patients with their dog; or participate in the children’s Reading to Dogs Program at the public library. All of these, definitely, are great places to visit, but when making the decision as to where you and your dog will do your visiting, BOTH ends of the leash must be considered. Take the hospital program mentioned above… a quiet and especially well-controlled dog is needed for this type of medical environment. Patients are in the hospital because they are sick. The dog needs to be extremely adaptable to this setting. And, the human volunteer must attend special training, then annual retraining, to volunteer at the hospital. The hospice setting is similar, as far as the dog goes; for the person, there is extensive training before you start – and the knowledge that the person you are visiting definitely is at the end of life. This can be tough – and not for everyone. As far as working with children, I caution people about the high liability risks involved when working with children. You want to be certain that your dog won’t ever get startled by a child’s sudden movement, turn and bite the child. Your dog should definitely have been raised with children in the home or highly socialized around children. The perfect match is one that works for YOU and for the DOG. You’re a TEAM!
As an evaluator, I make recommendations to folks after I have evaluated their dog, based on my observations of the dog’s personality, controllability, predictability, and level of interaction with the residents we visit. Bottom line, you must be honest with yourself as to your dog’s talents, limits, likes and dislikes. You want this to be an enjoyable experience for both of you. One that you’ll never want to stop doing. Select your place wisely – and if it’s not the right fit for you and your dog – try a different environment and age group.
Bright Spot Therapy Dogs, Inc. has over 50 facilities (a wide variety of programs and populations) requesting our services. There are many places in your area where you and your dog can visit. Joining an organization such as Bright Spot will offer guidance in making your selection.
Living in the hills of western Massachusetts, I have the luxury of being able to walk right out the door into the woods or onto the country road for a pleasant walk with the dogs. We do this early in the morning around 6:30 AM – it’s so quiet and peaceful then… my favorite time of the day. At this time of the year, the air is crisp and the sun is shiny and bright. Occasionally, we’ll run into a flock of wide turkeys. They’re so tame around here (and plentiful), they don’t fly off when they see the dogs approaching. We’ll often run into a neighbor or two and stop for a chat. Later in the day, the dogs love it, too, when I pop them in the car and head to a section of the bike path. In our area, we have miles and miles of contiguous bike paths connecting several area towns. Here the dogs get to meet people and other dogs along the way, stop and socialize for a few minutes, and move along. It’s a great place to socialize a puppy or dog in training to be a therapy dog. Sometimes we’ll meet up with a friend and take the walk together. The dogs love their special walking time – and so do I – wherever we go.
Not just nursing homes… When asked once to be the speaker for the monthly meeting of a civic organization, the person calling me said, We’d like to hear about what it is that you do with your dogs in the nursing homes. I responded by saying that we visit in lots of other places besides nursing homes. The caller was so surprised. The slideshow I presented at their meeting with 44 photos of our volunteers visiting in a variety of settings and with all age groups, was quite an eye-opener. This caller is not the only one who didn’t realize how widespread the use of therapy dogs is today. People inquiring about doing this work themselves with their dogs have had the same impression. Do I have to visit in a nursing home? is not an uncommon question. The value of therapy dogs interacting with people has become far more widely appreciated and accepted since I started visiting in the early 90’s. Studies bear out the mental, as well as physical benefits of using therapy dogs in both healthcare facilities and educational programs. You’ll see therapy dogs in school classrooms, children’s reading programs in libraries, hospice, rehab centers, hospitals, senior centers, and mental health facilities, as well as nursing homes and any other place therapy dogs can be of help.
A new resident in the Alzheimer’s unit, Constance has refused to come out of her room. Her hearing is compromised, she is disoriented, and has difficulty communicating. Attempts to get her down to the physical therapy room have been futile. One thing that is known about Constance is that she is an animal lover… Entered James – and the magical connection occurred! Constance smiled and waved her hands making attempts to communicate her desire to spend time with James. The physical therapists wanted to get her up and out of her room, so they told her if she went into the lounge, she could visit with James. She beamed and willingly followed them to a chair in the lounge positioned so she could cradle James’ head in her hands and pet his head. LOTS OF SMILES!!! I love doing this… wish I could spend everyday bringing James to visit with Constance.
When a dog owner calls me and says: I have an adorable, sweet, friendly dog. He’s so good with people. I know he’ll make a wonderful therapy dog. When can you evaluate him? I get a bit nervous. More times then not, these are the dogs that come galloping in through the door, six foot lead fully extended. The dog has a big smile on his face, tongue hanging out, saying – I’m here. I’m very, very friendly! Or, they’re the dogs whose owners want passionately to be involved with this type of work, but I see them literally dragging their cowering dog in behind them. In both scenarios, the owners are eager to get started. This presents a problem for me as the evaluator.
Dog #1 – our overly exuberant, jolly fellow – clearly is very happy to be in the new environment. Just what I like to see in a therapy dog. The dog is literally smiling. But, he’s quite a bit out-of-control. The owner tells me that the dog is perfect, He sits, stays, heels, downs – all on command – when we’re by ourselves with no distractions. Well, a therapy dog, for the most part, is not alone and there are plenty of distractions. In this case, since the dog clearly is happy to be in the setting, I recommend that the owner work more – lots more – on getting the basic obedience commands solid, testing the dog’s controllability in a variety of settings with distractions (go into public buildings where dogs are allowed and interact with people of all ages, test the basic commands indoors and outdoors). When he is completely controllable, he may very well be ready to be re-evaluated. Here, it’s up to the owner. He must ask himself, Am I willing to put in the time to train my dog for therapy dog visiting? (Of course, in my opinion, this is a mute point for a responsible dog owner. It’s our job, we owe this to our dogs, whether or not they become therapy dogs.) I have found that those who are committed to doing this with their dog have had a successful outcome.
Dog #2 is more difficult to turn around. If your dog is truly unhappy about being in a strange place, is shy or timid, it will take a lot of positive training and socialization to reverse this situation. The dog may have solid obedience commands – unlike dog #1 – and pass the obedience portion of the evaluation with flying colors, but be very unhappy and stressed out when interacting with strangers. It really isn’t fair to force the issue – this is not the overall package that makes a good therapy dog. A good therapy dog is happy while doing his job. It’s hard for me, but in cases like this, I recommend to folks that they not pursue therapy dog visiting. This recommendation in no way means that their dog is not wonderful – all dogs are wonderful – but not all dogs make good therapy dogs.