My dad was not what you would call a dog person. But one afternoon during the last days of his life, when he was confined to bed, uncommunicative, and clearly in pain, he began stroking my dog, Clyde. Did connecting with this warm, furry mutt comfort him in that moment? I'd like to think so.
Therapy dogs provide this kind of wet-nosed support every day. Man's best friend is particularly suited to the job. "Dogs are very intuitive," says Melanie Dunbar, president of Hope Animal-Assisted Crisis Response (AACR), a national nonprofit that oversees more than 200 canine teams. "They can break through what many people can't.
Unlike service dogs or emotional-support animals, which provide support to owners with physical or mental disabilities (and undergo months or even years of specialized training to become certified), therapy dogs offer more basic TLC to all sorts of people in a variety of settings-hospitals, hospices, retirement homes, schools, prisons, and mental-health facilities, among other institutions-with shorter, more generalized training.
Having a friendly pup is, of course, essential, but there are other prerequisites: Your dog must be at least one year old, and well behaved- not just at home but in public, where skateboarders and stray chicken bones may startle or distract him. "It's also important that your dog truly enjoy interactions with strangers," adds Mary Margaret Callahan of Pet Partners, a national nonprofit that trains and registers therapy teams.
Your enthusiasm is also crucial. Ask yourself if you're willing to commit the time and money to training and therapy visits, and if you feel comfortable in potentially emotional situations.
Chances are, your pet will need to be screened by a therapy-dog organization. (Find a list at akc.org/akctherapydog/organizations.cfm.) Expect to pay a registration fee; Pet Partners charges about $95 for two years. You'll also need to pass an evaluation. (One possible scenario: A stranger gives your dog a full-body hug.) How you respond to your pet is just as critical as its behavior. "We want to see that you can read your dog's body language," says Callahan. A complete vet checkup will also be required before you can register.
Above and Beyond
If your dog is at least 18 months old and has completed 12 therapy visits, he may be ready to move on to Hope AACR. "There's much more stress and unpredictability than in typical animal therapy," notes Hope's Dunbar, who dispatched teams to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and to the post-9/11 World Trade Center site. Such teams often travel long distances-on short notice-and are on their feet for hours at a time. The program also costs more (about $500 for training and equipment).
At Hope AACR, therapy teams are initially screened and evaluated in groups before attending a three-day workshop, during which handlers are schooled in canine behavior, stress signals, and psychological first aid. It's a huge commitment, but it brings great rewards. "You get folks at these scenes who say, ‘I don't want to talk to anybody,' but they'll pet and talk to your dog," says Dunbar. "It's amazing to watch dogs do that work. It's unexplainable magic."
Put Your Best Paw Forward
Set your dog up for success with these tips:
Brush up on basic commands with an obedience class, like the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen training (about $100 for six weeks of classes).
Spend time around leashed dogs (not those running freely at a dog park) practicing good behavior; this will get your pal used to working, not just playing, with other canines.
Do come-sit-stay drills in a public place (like a garden center or an outdoor market) until your pet obeys your cues perfectly, even with distractions.
Enlist a friend to stagger or walk awkwardly toward your dog on the street and then approach to pet it. Or have several friends pet your dog all at once. Note your pet's reactions, and practice until it's comfortable. As Callahan notes, "Knowing your pet, and when he's happy and when he's unsure, is critical to being a successful team."