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An Introduction to Therapy Dogs

1199825_shar_peiAs a dog owner, you know that one of the best things about living with man’s best friend is how much happiness your dog can bring in to your life. So the idea of a therapy dog might not seem that new or surprising to you, but how much do we know about what therapy dogs can do?

First of all, it’s important to understand the distinction between a service dog and a therapy dog.

They differ in that service dogs are specially trained, usually from a young age, to assist with a specific need. They become full-time companions and assistants to their human owners. They are legally allowed to accompany their owners into most institutions and areas where pets would not normally be able to go. On the other hand, a therapy dog does not need rigorous training. Therapy dogs are raised as regular pets and, if their temperament is a good fit, they become therapy dogs later in life. They are not specially trained to assist with any particular tasks. They offer therapy to people other than their owner (usually the owner acts as handler when going on visits to others in need of therapy). And legal restrictions do apply to therapy dogs, so they may not have access to certain buildings or areas.

Knowing that a good dog can become a therapy dog may open up many exciting possibilities for you and your dog. If you have ever considered offering service as a therapy dog handler, perhaps now is a great time to start looking into how you and your dog can share the gift of a friendly word and tail wag.

The requirements for a therapy dog are usually based in the dog’s natural character and personality. Qualifications include excellent temperament around all people and all other pets. A therapy dog is friendly, pleasant, and able to enjoy all attention and affection.

Usually the only age specification is that the dog needs to be over a year old. Depending on the type of therapy being rendered, an older dog with a mild and even-keeled temperament is just as qualified as a young, active dog that is eager to do tricks and play with toys.

Therapy dogs must be obedience-trained and responsive to their handler’s directions. There is a variety of therapy dog groups and associations, each with their own evaluation and certification procedures. Membership in any one of these groups requires that both dog and handler qualify for and pass their certification and then meet any continuing association requirements. Usually this means being current with fees, training, and health. A therapy dog must be in excellent health and stay current with exams, vaccinations, etc. And of course, each therapy dog must also have a handler who is able to devote the same time, effort, and temperament to therapy work.

But just what type of work does a therapy dog do? Well, therapy work is as varied as the needs it’s made to meet. Here are some of the most common places that therapy dogs can help:

Therapy dogs and handlers can work with children who are struggling with reading. Reading to dogs helps children to overcome their uncertainty and hesitation. The comfort of having a listening and accepting companion, along with the calming affects of petting a furry tummy, all help children to feel comfortable and calm while reading.

Therapy dogs and handlers can make therapeutic visits to hospitals, nursing homes, detention centers, and other areas where people have been displaced from their normal environment. In these cases, a dog can make rounds to a variety of people to offer some variety, interest, and excitement to their day. These types of visits can also help those who are struggling with pain.

Therapy dogs can also participate in animal-assisted rehabilitation efforts. This applies to situations where a patient is regaining physical abilities. The involvement of a dog makes the process more enjoyable. For example, a more active dog can help by fetching toys thrown by a patient who is strengthening or exercising arm and hand muscles.

Some therapy dogs render service by helping people to relieve stress. For example, some airports have invited therapy dogs to come to help holiday travelers manage the stress of traveling at such a busy time of year. Similarly, some college campuses have programs that invite therapy dogs to help fight end-of-term and finals stress.

Finally, some therapy dogs and their owners respond to disaster situations. They are on hand to provide comfort and support. They also can visit in emergency shelters where displaced people and families are living temporarily.

In the end, therapy dogs and their handlers are simply spreading the joy of interacting with a loving pet. In so many ways, a dog can break down barriers and offer help, healing, and comfort.

 

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