Therapy Dog PetChat: How to Become a Therapy Dog Volunteer

Moderator:Welcome to this Wednesday’s PetChat hosted event with Rachel Friedman a former therapy-dog volunteer and trainer. Rachel will answer your questions on how to become a therapy-dog volunteer and questions related to training. Welcome Rachel!

ABetterPetter: Hi. Rachel here. I’m happy to answer any and all questions. I am a trainer of both companion and working dogs. Let m start with some definitions to make sure we’re all clear. A companion dog is a pet dog. A therapy dog is a dog who works with a person as an adjunct or aid in a professional relationship. Although many call dogs who provide AAT (Animal Assisted Activities) therapy dogs. A service dog is a dog who is trained to mitigate or help a person with their disability. That disability could be medical, physical, visible or invisible.

MaggieC: So if I want to take my dog into visit sick kids to make them happy, what would that be called?

ABetterPetter: Well, it would really be providing AAT. But since most people refer to that as therapy dogs, I’m happy to use that for this forum but I just thought people would want to know the real meaning behind the words!

MaggieC: Yes, that’s good to know!

ABetterPetter: So what makes a good therapy or AAT dog? There are some facilities that require people interested in providing AAT to have their dog pass something like the CGC (Canine Good Citizenship Test) and get certified for liability purposes (getting insurance in case, gasp, something happens). These would be places like hospitals and G places with lawyers on staff!!!! On the other hand, nursing homes where many residents are lonely, have fewer requirements for people to bring their dogs, and I often recommend people try that first.

ABetterPetter: There are dogs who can pass the CGC who are not good therapy dogs, and there are dogs who might never pass the CGC who would be great. But those tests exist as a general guideline.

Cutiemydoggie: We have people at the hospital where I work bring their dogs in for our patients to see and pet. Those bedridden patients really love the dog’s company.

Sanlynnj: I have nursing homes in my area, I would love to share my dog with the residents.

ABetterPetter: There are dogs who might be goofy in their lives and suddenly develop a sense of purpose and “get it” when they need to be a certain way to be appropriate within the limits of the place they’re visiting.

Valentine: Wow! That’s phenomenal.

ABetterPetter: It’s very exhausting for dogs. So visits should be kept to under 45 minutes. There are dogs who are going to not like being in places like nursing homes or hospitals, that might otherwise be great dogs. Even if the dog is calmly lying on a patient’s bed or next to a wheelchair and seems to be doing a lot of nothing, that can be exhausting. Think how you are when you have to be super well behaved! Especially when you’re young! The thing about nursing homes is often residents can act unpredictably so you just want to be mindful of how they react to all the novel sounds, scents, surfaces (slippery floors!), etc.

Valentine: Question, are there particular breeds that make better candidates?

ABetterPetter: I would say the more interactive types of dogs as opposed to the more aloof breed types (livestock guarding dogs, Asian breeds, etc.) But honestly, it’s more about the dog’s temperament and socialization than a breed.

Valentine: Ahh, I see, that makes sense.

ABetterPetter: Sometimes the experience you might have is downright magical. It’s very rewarding using your beloved dog to spread good cheer.

Valentine: As you’ve mentioned before, dogs actually realize that they have a job to do? Do they enjoy it?

ABetterPetter: It’s hard to ask them if they enjoy it but you can observe their behavior and get a clue. I strongly urge you start out with brief visits and really keep them under an hour.

ABetterPetter: I remember a bazillion years ago, okay, about 18 years, taking my then dogs to a nursing home for a visit when I was living in Philly. The dogs at that time were both females. one a Springer, the other a Catahoula. We entered a foyer in the nursing home where an ancient woman was laying quietly on a gurney. She saw my Catahoula, sat up, and started babbling in German. The nursing staff said she had been there for a long time and never spoke. Sadly, no one understood German but clearly seeing my dog triggered some sense memory and it was very cool. (There had been visiting dogs before, but never a Catahoula).

Sanlynnj: Aww… might have reminded her of a dog she once had

MaggieC: Do you have a sense if little dogs do well in this area? I would worry that the patient might hurt them, by accidently squeezing too hard.

ABetterPetter: Small dogs can be great. Medium, large, XL…they all have function. You want to be guarded about where you take them and what population to protect your dog from harm. But dogs are pretty intuitive and might tolerate inappropriate behavior from a patient more than in another environment.

MaggieC: Have you had any experience with cats doing this? I read an article recently where there was a cat companion

ABetterPetter: I have one cat who would be a great therapy cat. I haven’t used her. There are just not enough hours in the day, but I have knowledge of people who do use cats.

DawnHanson: Do you have to worry about the patients having allergies?

: Yes.

DawnHanson: So is that something you discuss with the facility or just make sure that your dog is very clean?

ABetterPetter: In hospitals the dogs must be freshly cleaned and brushed for dander to be as clean as possible and you would be limited to areas of the hospital where infection control is not an issue.

DawnHanson: Ok, thanks

ABetterPetter: Each program might be different, but generally patients are offered visits and sign up so the visiting volunteers for that day are given assignments and a general idea of what they’re being asked to do in each room.

Sanlynnj: So, calling a nursing home to see if they would allow it is the best route. Not to just show up there one day.

ABetterPetter: In hospitals the heads of these programs generally are volunteer coordinators or something like that. Yes, best to connect to a nursing home and find out who’s in charge of the volunteers. That being said, however, I have brought a few different dogs to visit my own mother in a nursing home and never even asked permission, just took the dogs in.

Indypie: Is it better to start the dog as a therapy dog when he’s a puppy?

ABetterPetter: The fancier programs will not allow puppies.

Indypie: Just a word of warning which the nurses could alert you to…my father had dementia and was very annoyed by my daughter’s dog and would try to hit him in the head to make him go away…he came close to being bitten!

ABetterPetter: If a dog is at risk for biting, that dog probably should not be brought to a nursing home. It’s very stressful work and not for all dogs. When I take dogs anywhere, I am very mindful of the stress level and manage safety at all times. Even if you wouldn’t know to watch us!

Indypie: I’ve seen specials on the benefits of dogs assisting in library reading programs. Have you had any experience with those?

ABetterPetter: Yes. I used my dog Bean at my kids’ elementary school and have trained service dogs for children with autism in which one of the functions is helping develop more pragmatic language and in some cases reading skills. Dogs are non judgmental and seem to enjoy hearing kids read!

Training–Chewing Issues

Pitlover: I have a 7 mo. old Pit/pointer (?) according to the vet. She chews everything in sight! I rent a room and the people are not too happy. Any suggestions?

ABetterPetter: Get her appropriate chew toys, manage her access to things she can destroy, train her and exercise her and manage, manage, manage. There’s obviously MUCH more but that’s the short, short answer.

Pitlover: To ABP..thanks…She has had free access to stuffed animals so I told my landlord…not her fault! I will pick everything up. Have to run. Thanks again.

Dealing with Car sickness

Sanlynnj: My dog gets car sick if we go any distance. I have tried doing the short trips, not feeding first etc

ABetterPetter: Do you carry or otherwise force your dog into the car?

Sanlynnj: No, she will get in on her own. On the way home from the rescue, she got sick as a pup.

ABetterPetter: The car sick dog. What’s her behavior in the car when you’re moving? Is she calm or moving around? Does she react to things outside like dogs or anything else? Is she different on highway versus surface streets?

Sanlynnj: She lays calmly on the seat or on the floor. I know when she is getting sick, she starts licking her lips.

ABetterPetter: When she starts licking, what do you do?

Sanlynnj: Usually nothing.

ABetterPetter: Then what happens?

Sanlynnj: I don’t want to react too much I guess. She throws up. I have given her motion sickness pills, but I don’t really like doing that.

ABetterPetter: What do you do then? When she throws up?

Sanlynnj: I stop, so she doesn’t lay in it, clean it up, etc.

ABetterPetter: And this happens after how long in the car? And when you clean it up, what if anything are you saying or doing to with your dog?

Sanlynnj: She can go quite a distance before this happens. I just clean up the mess, don’t really say anything to her.

ABetterPetter: Well, there’s a lot more I’d ask to get further at the root. But here’s a possibility. Initially the vomiting may have begun because she wasn’t feeling well and then became a behavior triggered by your actions, which without intent you may have inadvertently reinforced.

Sanlynnj: She has a lot of positive things that happen when getting into the car.

ABetterPetter: If you can start to give her some +’s before the licking, then get out and have fun with her even if briefly, then continue on and try to have increasingly long episodes without licking getting triggered. I try to get people to think about a lot of the links in the chain of behaviors before the actual link they’re asking about. Dogs often give a ton of clues that most people don’t recognize even if you feel very close.

Sanlynnj: So, as soon as I see the licking begin, we should get out and walk a bit?

: No. Before. And if the licking starts, try to redirect her to something she likes that can be done while you’re driving (safety first). It’s important to try to figure out what it is that’s triggering the reactivity. Is it visual? Motion? Duration? It’s always something. Trust me!!!!

Best Dogs for young kids

JamieLou: Hello! I’m new in here :=)

Valentine: Hey JamieLou! You just got here in time for our PetChat Q&A

JamieLou: You see, I’m not yet a dog-owner and I’m thinking of getting one very soon. My kids are pleading that we get one–they’re 5 and 3. What breed is easier to train and who is okay with kids?

ABetterPet: what is your lifestyle like?

JamieLou: I’m a stay-at-home mom

Indypie: I have a yellow lab that is incredibly gentle!

ABetterPetter: Usually when people contact me about a dog whether as a pet or for service, I ask them to write up a fantasy wish list. If you closed your eyes and imagined what the dog of your dreams might be, what would that dog look like? Would it be male? Female? Long haired, short haired, high energy, large, small? That’s a good place to start. Make it a family meeting and go in with your eyes wide open. There are definitely breeds or breed types that are easier to train than others. There’s a reason Labs and Goldens are so popular. They’re sturdy, sporty, easy going, and pretty user friendly.

JamieLou: I’d really like a small dog but I heard from a lot of friends that small breeds are not so good with the kids or that the kids may not be good with them 🙂

ABetterPetter: Bologna. You have to provide parental supervision and guidance and get help if you need it. I did a training yesterday for a family with this out of control year-old hound mix. The parents have 5 year old twin boys. The dog is about 60 lbs. She had not one iota of aggression but was totally out of control. Today, about 36 hours later, she’s 180 degrees better and the owners now have a roadmap to follow that works well for them.

Indypie: You must be a dog whisperer of sorts!

ABetterPetter: I’m writing a book right now that I hope will be a very user friendly road map to help. Both my clients and pretty much anyone. It’s not rocket science but there are a lot of things people really need to be aware of to have the relationship with their dogs work.

MaggieC: What’s the name of your book?

ABetterPetter: The working title is: The 6 Pillars of Dog Training Wisdom: A Proactive Approach to Help Advance Deeper Awareness Towards Developing the Dog of Your Dreams.” I’m hoping to have the first draft done by late February. I don’t know about publishing though.

Valentine: Is it available in book stores?

ABetterPetter: It’s all in my head. I just have to find the time to put it down and there aren’t enough hours in the day. Not only do I have 3 kids, 3 dogs, 3 cats and run my own company, but we’re getting slammed every day with more snow and I spend a lot of time shoveling lately! And oh yeah, I do trainings all the time!

Sanlynnj: Well, I know I have a lot to learn.

Crazymonkey: Do you have a website?

ABetterPetter: Anyone interested can learn more about me on my website,

Breeds that are easy to train

JamieLou: Going back to breeds, so is it short to say that Labs and Goldens are far easier to train than other dogs?

ABetterPetter: Well. They are among the dogs that are usually more biddable. Wanting to please. But certainly there are many many, many, many breeds and breed types/mixes that can be easy. A lot is understanding temperament and socialization. That old nature/nurture thing. And aloof dog types seem easy but are in fact usually much more challenging because most people ignore things until there is a big problem because the very aloofness makes the dog’s negative behaviors less obvious.

Moderator: Thanks Rachel for your time!

Sanlynnj: Thank you, very informative

Valentine: Thanks so much Rachel.

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