Both ends of the leash are important…
In the early 90’s, when I first started visiting with my therapy dog Beatrice, I thought it was all up to her – she was the dog – and that’s what people were interested in. In part, I was quite spoiled… Beatrice was one of those naturals – she could have gone into the nursing home on her own. She instinctively knew just how to position herself for the particular patient she was visiting; as she moved onto the next, she knew just how to interact with them. She needed very little direction from me.
As we continued visiting through the years, though, I realized that I, in fact, played a very important role. The concept that we were a team – a therapy dog team – took shape in my mind. First, and foremost, I had to watch out for my dog’s safety while visiting in a busy healthcare facility. If her long tail were stretched out full length in the hallway, a wheelchair could drive right over it; medicine carts are parked near the nurses’ station and should be avoided. It was my job to see that she didn’t enter rooms where food was being served; and know when to end the visit when she showed signs of having had enough. Aside from safety issues, once Beatrice ignited conversation with a patient, I learned that I, too, should add a few leading questions to stimulate further conversation. This being one of the goals of therapy dog visits.
My subsequent therapy dogs have not been quite as easy as Beatrice… Rather then being naturals in the role – their abilities evolved. I found myself having to work harder; to work at maneuvering my dogs so that the patients could pet them. For a patient with limited mobility, I learned to make it possible for the patient to feel their soft fur (even though the patient was unable to stroke the fur). Sometimes kneeing to brace the dogs and prevent slipping on a smooth-surfaced floor; for a patient lying in bed, placing a chair next to the bed for the dogs to sit on within easy reach of the patient.
Such skills and techniques are learned and advance over time as you and your dog develop teamwork. The human and canine participants are working together to stimulate movement and conversation; to promote a feeling of comfort and caring. Done properly, both ends of the leash are busy working… and at the end of the visit, the team partners leave feeling pretty tired – but most of all, both the dog and the human volunteer know that they have brightened the day for those they have visited. A good therapy dog loves his job… My dogs literally run into their therapy dog vests when it’s time to get ready to leave the house for our visits.