Our friend and colleague, Katha Miller-Winder, a prolific contributor to the comment section of this very blog (“Kat”), has published a valuable book that gives guidance and advice to those who’d like to join that special group of people and dogs who make the world a better place because of their efforts. Becoming a Therapy Dog Team is so good that I bought 20 copies to donate to the team Tootsie and I worked with, Pet Pals of Madison, WI. Whether you’re an old pro or interested in getting started, this book belongs on your reading list. [Note that much of what I’ll be talking about is really AAA–Animal Assisted Activities, but I’m using “therapy” here loosely because it is so widely used. Early in the book, Katha does a good job defining each term.]
I can’t tell you how many clients I had in the past who said they wanted to do therapy work with their dog, including one dog who had bitten 13 times and was terrified of strangers. But most owners had friendly, sweet dogs, who may–or may not have–been well suited for therapy work. Figuring out if your dog is a good fit isn’t always easy, and that’s why one of my favorite sections of the book is the chapter “Qualities.” What qualities does your dog need to be a good therapy dog? So often I hear about well-mannered dogs and obedient dogs,” but that doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. Here’s just a part of that section, after a paragraph on the importance of a calm and friendly dog:
“A dog that indiscriminately adores everyone they meet can be a successful Therapy Dog but the smart dogs that are able to encourage people to engage with them have an extra edge. I’ve observed countless Therapy Dog evaluations. In one exercise, the dogs are required to walk into a crowd of people, all of whom want to pet them. I’ve noticed that some dogs enter the crowd and are happy to let anyone pet them and some dogs enter the crowd and make sure everyone pets them. (My italics.) The smart dogs are the latter; they count how many people are in the crowd and how many of them have petted them.”
I’m not sure I’d label this as smart as much as “empathetic” or “about to run for office,” but I adore that she makes this distinction. In my experience these dogs are rare–dogs who truly connect in some magical emotional way with strangers, who seek them out and offer their hearts to them.
Katha’s dog Ranger, a Border Collie cross who she talked about often before he died at age 13, was clearly one of those dogs. Ranger (“aka Park Ranger, Fearless Leader, and Friendliest Dog in the county”) seemed to be one of those rare dogs who sought out people who needed him. One of his rare acts of disobedience was dashing out of the car to leap onto the lap of a woman who had just lost her own dog. The woman was overwhelmed with gratitude. When people tried to pet Ranger’s head in that way that no dogs like (one of my sisters and I call them “happy slappies,” except only the slapper is happy), Ranger moved his body such that the person was petting him between his shoulders. He taught children in a reading program to stop chattering and get back to reading by slapping his paw on the book. The kids learned instantly that they needed to focus back on their reading assignments. What a guy. I wish I’d had a chance to meet him.
My Tootsie wasn’t that dog. She was docile and sweet and as safe as any dog I’ve every met in my entire career, and I’m happy she was in the Pet pals program for a few years. She loved petting from some people but only tolerated it from others. I kept her in the the Pet Pals program for a few years because she always trotted into the hospital like she owned it, and because her small size and sweet nature provided the solace that so many families in crisis needed. She never hesitated to trot into the hospital as if she was thrilled to be there, but only tolerated being on the laps of patients and their family members. I kept it up, after a great deal of consideration, because she brought so much joy and comfort to people who desperately needed it. I told friends that I decided it was her version of going to work. All the rest of us on the farm did things we didn’t always adore every single moment–digging on a hot, humid day (people), managing sheep in sleet (dogs)–this was just Tootsie’s version of earning her place on the couch every night.
Tootsie and me ready to go to work. (She’s not frowning, it’s her Andy Rooney eyebrows!)
However, I pulled her after a few incidents of boisterous children (always the siblings of the hospital patients) that frightened her, in spite of my best efforts to protect her. She was also getting old, and losing her hearing, and it was simply the right time for her to retire. Katha speaks eloquently about the need to take care of your dog as part of a therapy team:
“If you learn nothing else in this book, let it be this: You are the world’s foremost expert on your dog, and it is your job to be the advocate for your dog.”
Hear, hear to that. In my experience, the most challenging part of being a therapy dog team member is objectively evaluating your dog. I’ve seen examples of both phenomenal canine advocates, and people whose need to do this kind of work over rode an objective evaluation of what their dog needed. I truly love the way that Katha handles this issue.
But there’s so much more: The book untangles the multitude of definitions (therapy versus AAA for example) and ways a dog can contribute, reminds the reader that this is a job, not just a petting session, discusses good practices, what to avoid, different types of facilities, and, I sheepishly admit my favorites–heartwarming stories about Ranger and her new dog, D’Artagnan.
Katha and D’Artagnan, who I would like to pet right now, please, thank you very much. Uh, that’s the dog, although Katha looks lovely too.
I’d love to hear about your experiences, if you have them, either as part of a assistance dog or therapy dog team, or as the recipient. If you’d like to read or see more, I wrote several relevant posts in the past, all found under a section in the Learning Center, Learning about Animal Assisted Therapy and Activities.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Jim and I took advantage of some gorgeous weather and spent the night in the tent a bit ago. Here’s from the deck in front of the tent, overlooking some of the pastures. You can see our solar panel in the background behind the trees; it’s been earning it’s keep lately and we’re so happy to have it.
Skip spent most of the early evening looking for the sheep in a pasture below the top of the hill. He couldn’t see them, but he could smell them, and that was enough for him.
It was his very first night in the tent, and I was concerned when a neighbor decided to use up all of his fireworks. It wasn’t very peaceful for about an hour after dark, but Skip and Maggie weathered it well and settled down nicely. Very proud of them.
A few days ago I had a chance to work the dogs at Cedar Stone Farm. Skip thought he’d help you locate the sheep by pointing his ear at them:
I used Maggie to get the sheep out of their pens, which means yes yes yes, she is working sheep again! Not for long, and nothing taxing in any way, but so far so good. I have high hopes she’ll be ready for a trial in mid-August. Please cross all digits–fingers, paws and hooves.
I thought you’d appreciate a Maggie-eye view of the sheep. Don’t hesitate to think that ewe wouldn’t use her horns if she felt threatened enough. But we stayed calm, and moved the sheep quietly out of the pens. Maggie got do to a short outrun and drive, and then it was back to Skip’s turn. Hopefully, she’ll keep improving.
Here’s a little garden color to end on – – –
I hope your life is full of color this week too. Tell us about it?
I’ll be ordering the book today. Nina and I are certified with TDI, and she’s mugged everyone she’s had a chance to meet since COVID stopped our visits over a year ago. Nothing like an out-of-work therapy dog who’s not getting her fix.
She’s not in the super-smart category, though. I lead her up to people, and then she happily interacts with them.
My first dog, Cobie, who spent several years going to work with me, was that dog. He broke his rock-solid down-stay to enter a room where someone was crying and push his head under her hand. He would seek out residents who were awake (I worked night shift) and hang out with them. Nina has lots of abilities, but not those. Of course, Cobie was working more as an in-house facility dog who went home every day; Nina is on leash every second she is in the facility. Those who negotiate insurance get to make the rules…and I will follow them.
My facility has opened to visits again, but since I just had a hip replacement it will be at least a couple of weeks.
Congrats, Kat, on the book and the stellar review. Nicely done!
One of our Goldens was a therapy puppy! They lived across from the hospital, and Ester would go visit as a fluffy, fat pup. She wasn’t trained, she was only a puppy, but she certainly had the temperament and personality for it. I always wondered if that early experience helped her be comfortable around just about anyone in any circumstance. She was a very confident dog. She would often go from person to person at parties and visit for a minute. Especially funny when we were having a sit-where-you-can brunch, and she went from sitting person to sitting person and gave them an eye-to-eye look and broad smile. I think she was mostly asking for a bite of food, but it was quite funny to watch her work the room. She loved a good gathering.
Marilyn Mele says
Watching a therapy animal at work is always a moving experience. After almost two decades as a volunteer with therapy dogs and therapy horses, each interaction still feels like therapy for me too! Can’t wait to read the book!
cindy crofton says
Can you give recommendations on how to decide if your dog is qualified and where to go for training? Specifically want to be a reading dog because I have seen that magic work with reluctant readers and it is awesome.
Kelly Marie Keeney says
I’m so very excited to hirovere is a wonderful wonderful book to keep growing our therapy dog community. That’s been evaluator and handler for quite some time and it is such a joy…
One of the best things is that it mentions what I think is one of the most important parts of therapy dog training – advocacy for your dog.. It is SO under explained in the therapy dog world in my experience. I had a woman bring in a pup who did agility was an obedience competitor and she wanted to in his retirement and hers and hers do therapy dog work.. Unfortunately this dog did not like strangers and and would not tolerate being pet. Pet mom would not reconsider. It was not the right job for him and his fearful/uncomfortablle behavior was not in her list of concerns. SO HAPPY Kat is covering this and much more so well in her new book! Good Luck Kat and Thank you Patricia (as always)
Lainy Young says
I too have a therapy dog, named McGee. A Border Collie mix who is 10 now. We have been visiting remedial reading classes, special needs children and the VA for 8 years. McGee is my heart dog he has touched the lives of a countless number of people. I have formed countless wonderful friendships that never would have happened if not for McGee. Once on arrival to a special needs visit he immediately went to a little girl who was laying on a mat in the cornered the room. She didn’t feel well and had been crying and was waiting for her mom to pick her up. McGee curled up next to her and stayed with her til her mom got there. I was so proud of him. Several of the teachers asked how I trained him to do that and I told them, ‘you can’t train that, he just knew he needed to be there with her’. Being his handler and part of a therapy dog team is one of the most rewarding ‘jobs’ I have ever done.
McGee will be 11 this year and has some arthritis in his neck so we have all but retired this year with the exception of a very small, 4 to 6 children, remedial reading class. Then in the near future I will start looking for my next therapy dog.
Linda H. says
I attended an informational session by TDI in hopes of enrolling my very smart miniature poodle, Gigli, in their program so she could be a therapy dog at a near by assisted living facility. I thought Gigli had everything to make her an excellent therapy dog because she has everything – does tricks, very obedient, cute face, calm manners, soft fur and a doting mom! I am so glad I attended that meeting because I was given the tools to recognize that the one thing she didn’t have is passion to interact with strangers. While I would have loved doing therapy work, Gigli would have hated it. Lesson learned! She will stick to being cute and I will stick to being a doting mom!
I am ordering the book, and have everything crossed that Maggie continues to recover. Years ago I used to bring my Borzoi, Marcia, and Merlin, my Siamese cat, to a retirement home once a week just to spend time with the residents in the facility’s activity room. Although Marcia had been rescued from a home where she was being terribly neglected, she was a gentle friendly dog who never lost her opinion that people were wonderful. At each visit she would work the room, pausing beside each person as she waited to see if they wanted to pet her. After spending a few minutes with each of her admirers, she was allowed to wander the hallways and choose which rooms she would enter to engage with bedridden patients. She always knew who welcomed her presence. For the final half hour of our visit, she would return to the activity room and sit beside a lovely gentleman who wept as he stroked her, reminiscing about a much loved Collie he had when he was a child. With no formal training aside from basic obedience, Marcia was a perfect visitor for elderly people who were missing their own pets. Merlin was a favorite of all who had ever owned a cat. He was happy to sit on any offered lap, purring loudly. I’m sure he considered himself a therapy cat!
Wendy S. Katz says
I’ve enjoyed Kat’s contributions to the comment streams and I look forward to reading her book! My late Golden made therapy visits to a nursing home and a rehab hospital. At the rehab place they brought the patients into a common room; it was amusing to watch him move from person to person, giving each an allotment of attention. He especially loved children, and some of our most enjoyable interactions were with bored kids who accompanied visiting relatives.
It’s funny you mentioned “about to run for office.” I called my next dog Mayor of the neighborhood because of the way he systematically greeted each person in a group. He cracked up a family on a porch one day when, after working his way down the row of chairs, he wanted to go back to the beginning and do it again. When he was an adolescent, he wanted to greet everyone but as he matured he developed a keen sense of who was approachable and who wasn’t interested. He would dismiss some people with a glance but when he approached, it was always someone who wanted to interact. Sadly, I was too busy during his lifetime to do therapy visits with him.
I am working my way through my online Pet Pals course here in Madison so I can get to the evaluation phase with my Labrador. He might just be a good therapy dog. Big and sweet and beautiful, he’s the kind of dog that everyone wants to interact with. And vice versa. He simply must make the rounds and greet everyone when we go somewhere. It’s generally his first priority to go say hi to every group of people. He knows how to offer himself to differed sized people, too.
My dearly departed husky, Rizzo, and I were a hospice pet therapy team for seven years. He was one of those magical ones that seemed to know who needed him and what would help them. One example: we got off the elevator in a nursing home to visit out patient. One of the orderlies came walking toward us with obvious purpose. I thought I might have to explain to him that dogs are allowed, but he simply sank to his knees in front of Rizzo. Riz, who adored everyone, went over the moon for this man. He placed his paws on the man’s shoulders and started licking him from chin to forehead. The man was sobbing. I gently apologized for Rizzo’s behavior, since licking wasn’t appropriate, but the man stopped me. He said that his nine-year-old German Shepherd Dog just passed away a few days before and he was heartbroken. Rizzo was helping him. I was happy to let Riz continue his ministrations! Later that day, a neighbor confided that she had lost her job and the bank was taking her house. Would I know of anyone who could help her rehome her female German Shepherd? Long story short, Will (the nursing home orderly), his wife and son agreed to give my neighbor’s dog a home. It was a truly magical day. One that I’ll never forget!
Charlotte Kasner says
I was in the UK Pets As Therapy programs with my Sibe for several years. We visited a local nursing home which had a massive variety of residents on 5 floors regularly and several other places as one-off visits.
Vadim needed to be comfortable with a variety of walking aids and wheelchairs; he was surprised the first time someone made a beeline for him on wheels! I would also suggest that it is useful to have a small dog that can sit in laps and on beds or a larger dog that can be petted by people with limited movement whilst in a high-sided bed. I sometimes let Vadim rest his front paws on my arm, especially if frail residents couldn’t cope with his weight on their bed.
Some of the rooms we visited were pretty cramped so it might be important to make sure that a dog can back out if needed. Some of the residents made sudden movements or unusual noises and some could grab.
He was tested in advance to ensure that he didn’t paw, beg for treats or jump up and his startle reposes was tested (non-existant – it was usually me that jumped).
I would add that you really need to know your dog and be honest they display signs of unwillingness at any point. It is also vital to raise with staff to understand potential dangers and to ensure that everyone is keen to greet the dog. (That applies to staff too).
Tails Around the Ranch says
Based on your review, I ordered a copy this morning of this book and look forward to receiving it. My last Standard Poodle, Sam was a hospital therapy dog for 7 years and after he passed away last year, I rescued Norman, an Old English Sheepdog. Norman is one of the most affable dogs I’ve ever known and his looks alone make him a big draw at hospital but as a newbie, he’s slightly overwhelmed 9 (as am I) with crowds after a year of the panDAMNic but hopefully with this book we’ll both get back to bringing patients and nurses a momentary bit of joy. Thank you.
My fabulous, wonderful dog, who I failed miserably to train well enough to ignore other dogs, was a smart boy. We got the opportunity to work in an elementary school totally uncertified. (Yes, I know). He would find the kids in meltdown and rest his head on their lap and slowly wag his tail until they calmed down. He did this with the adults too. In special education, he never hesitated around the medical equipment- just walked up to where hands could be placed in his fur. SO MANY SMILES on nonverbal kids. When he got tired, he’d crate himself and turn his back to the door. “Closed for business.”
In answer to your question what I’d tell a person looking to do social therapy with a dog:
Dogs who can do this work aren’t as plentiful as you might think – after 7 years with my certified social therapy Labrador doing reading sessions with young English as 2nd language students, I know what it takes from the right dog. Finding a dog who’s suited to that job can be very challenging & take much longer than you planned.
Years ago, one of the families that belongs to our church had a Bernese Mountain Dog, named Presley. She was the sweetest, most gentle dog you’d want to know, and she was a registered therapy dog who visited patients at UW Hospital in Madison, WI. She was well-known at the hospital, and everyone benefitted from her visits! At that time, I happened to be a Deacon at our church, and I served at the same time that her (human) Dad served. As a part of the Deacon Ministry, Presley visited the homes of many of our church members, and she brightened their days with her presence. She was recognized by our church as “Presley, the Deacon Dog” and was “ordained” as a Presbyterian Deacon! Word spread, and before long an article was written about her in “Presbyterian Outlook,” the magazine for our denomination. She was loved by people near and far…and currently resides at the Rainbow Bridge, waiting for her humans to arrive.
Deborah Barone says
I have had 5 standard poodles work as therapy dogs. All are very polite with strangers but Emily who has just retired at 13 would pick out the most emotionally needy person in any group and stick to them like glue. Since we do mostly behavioral health settings there were lots of choices. Quinn who is generally just polite to strangers unless they want her to perform and have treats met a woman at an inpatient psychiatric facility who’d recently lost her pet and when Quinn approached her started crying. Quinn, against all rules immediately started licking the tears away which only caused the patient to cry more. But, they ended up with a lovely cuddle session and some tricks. Sometimes rules are meant to be broken. My lime with prospective therapy dog owners is that almost any dog can learn the obedience skills necessary for therapy work but exceptional therapy dogs need to have the right temperament.
I moved back home to New England this week. My 65 year old self drove with my dog and parakeets from Oregon to New Hampshire! Happy and relieved to have made it safely and to be home after 17 years of living out west!
Davis Janice says
My pup, Tucker, is a therapy dog. He’s the kind that makes sure everyone pets him. For 5 years, we worked with second graders and special ed students in a local school. He loved it! I can’t tell you how many times he would greet staff and before I knew it, they would be in a love fest on the floor. Comments such as, “how did you know I needed this today” were common. He wiggled up to everyone. Being an unemployed therapy dog is hard. When we walk around our neighborhood, he has to stop at every house where he knows someone. He’ll slowly sit down, wag his tail and stare at the house. He refuses to move. Just often enough, neighbors come out to say hi. He lives for relationships.
Jann Becker says
My Goldendoodle Kira looked like a prospective therapy dog, but I was the weaker one of the team. I use a cane and have limited stamina; the local training association suggested that the walking and standing involved might be too much. Kira’s still everybody’s new best friend!
Upshot is, I sometimes get the feeling that too much prestige goes with having one’s dog certified. Dogs that can do therapy are wonderful, don’t get me wrong, but a great dog can be a lovely pet in the privacy of their family.
Where can we order this book, please?
Deb Mickey says
I look forward to reading this book! I’ve done various kinds of community outreach throughout my life with dogs in the form of school demonstrations, nursing home visits and the like.
My two current border collies are registered therapy dogs. Their most recent “work” was with hospice patients & their families before COVID shut things down and the most touching moment of their career so far was the comfort they provided a family during the funeral of one of our hospice friends.
Both dogs worked the crowd before the service started bringing big smiles to everyone. Then during the service my older dog Cait continually moved as far as her leash would let her go to comfort one hospice caregiver and the son of our hospice friend. Toward the end of the service she moved directly in front of the son and his wife and stayed there so they could pet her until the service was over. I don’t know how dogs know what people need but these two certainly brought comfort to those there that day. I was amazed then and still am today.
Thanks for bringing this book to our attention. Can’t wait to read it.
I am one of those who always wanted to be part of a therapy dog team with Kona – the toy poodle; however, my work and lifestyle meant it was never to be. I do think based on your review and the descriptions of others he may have excelled at the job 😉 surely I am not biased!
Pre-COVID I would take him to visit family unofficially at the local nursing home. On the way to my Grandmothers room, he would interact with all those he deemed needed him. It was amazing to watch my normally aloof and obnoxious little man become a calm and caring dog who instinctively knew who needed to give him a bit of their bickie or stroke his fur. I watched him repeatedly and voluntarily give his most prized possession to my Grandmother so she could play with him from her chair.
I’ve seen Kona calm and relax a young autistic boy who was overwhelmed by his environment. His mother was guilt ridden for bringing him but unable to leave her other children. Kona approached the boy and allowed him to bury his face in poodle fur to breathe and calm himself. The boy’s mother was surprised – they had a family dog she said but the boy and the dog never voluntarily interacted.
There are so many more stories – so perhaps while we never trained as a therapy team we have had an impact on the lives of others anyway. Thanks again for the blog and the review – I am off to go book shopping….
I used to have a Golden Retriever named Drifter as a service dog. While he loved being able to come with me wherever I went, he disliked having to ignore everyone else while on-duty. He loved everyone, including every stranger, and almost everyone loved him. In fact, he cured several people of their fear of dogs during his free time. Although he was good at his actual job, I think he would have had an even better life had he been a therapy dog. Considering that he radiated joy constantly, that would have been quite a sight to see.
Kay: Book is available on Amazon.
DONNA KELLAR says
Great subject and thanks for the recommendation. The book sounds like a great resource.
The comments evoked tears- that unspoken bond between people and dogs is so touching.
Thanks for sharing!
Hollis Sensenig says
I was on an Obedience road with Kyra. Had a CD and 2/3 in Open and working on Utility when she ruptured both CCL’s. No more jumping (warned Dr. Smith). She already was TDI, and after reading a detailed article (forget author, but an LPN) on incorporating visitations into part of a treatment plan, I used Kyra’s training (I happened to work in a Physical/ Neuro Rehab hospital).
– In PT, she was a fetching fool! Didn’t matter if it was a tennis ball, or a large ball she nosed back. She quickly learned to walk with manual and power chairs.
-In OT, she was great with some fumbling on donning/ doffing all sorts of collars, leashes, harnesses- and grooming;
-SLP , she was very patient with enunciation, and knew hand signals very well. The SLP ran the session. I stood by.
And entertainment- this is where her scent discrimination training came in. Nothing better to perk some patients up than to have them handle a toy, put it in a pile (of course she was blindfolded), send her and she gets the correct toy!
@Jann, I’m so sorry that you were made to feel that unless you could walk long distances you couldn’t do Therapy Dog work. While it’s true that some visits do require a lot of walking in our group we have a wide variety of visit types including several where we move around the room sitting next to different residents and visiting with them for a bit before shifting to visit someone else. Not to mention Reading to a Dog visits where the team stays in one place and kids come to them to read. One of my teams is with a Springer Spaniel i.e. a dog that’s too big to lift easily and not tall enough for people in beds to reach easily. Originally the handler/partner would go down on one knee and the dog would put her front paws up on the knee so she’d be tall enough to reach. Unfortunately an injury and subsequent surgeries made that really hard. They thought they were going to have to retire but I suggested they try Reading to a dog and soon the Springer was a highly sought after dog in schools and libraries. Having seen the incredible impact these dogs have (even those that never wear the official designation but only work unofficially) I never want to deny a team that wants to do the job the opportunity to do it.
@All, Thank you for sharing all your stories. I’ve misted up a few times reading them. The wisdom, joy, and empathy of Therapy Dogs never ceases to amaze me. Give your dogs an extra scritch from me and keep up the great work.
I’ve always enjoyed Kat’s comments and stories, and I’ve never been steered wrong by one of Trisha’s recommendations…
Just ordered it. Congratulations on it’s publication!
I’m going to get your book, Kat, even though I am only aspirational with therapy dogs. I read your Ranger & Finna blog for several years, and always enjoyed the entries.
I had hoped Mr. B might be one, but he is just not social enough. But I have run a read to dogs program at my library for over 10 years and have met great owners and amazing dogs. One of my handlers said that her therapy dogs have been bored during the pandemic and really need jobs.
A friend has a dog she adopted as a stray puppy. G looks like a small snowy spaniel and is every inch a gorgeous diva. She lives for attention. My friend works full time and then some, but agrees she would probably make a marvelous therapy dog.
Received today and read in one gulp. Congratulations, Kat, you’ve done a good job!
I forwarded the link to the Volunteer Coordinator at the facility where I visit (and used to work) because I know she gets enquiries.
You’ve also helped me realize that Nina would not be suitable for hospital visits, because she hates to walk on slippery floors–the facility we visit is carpeted, so it’s a non-issue for us. I have laminate floors at home, so I have never understood where her fear originated, but it’s real. They might as well be radioactive, says she.
Years ago TDI would not let us participate because I feed raw. Anyone know if this is still the case?
Elizabeth L.Stroter says
Trisha, you are one of my most favorite dog gurus. You define dog behavior in ways we can easily grasp. You do it without making us feel stupid. Bless your heart.
When my Mom was in a nursing home, around year 2000, the facility allowed family pets to visit. A few of us had been visiting Mom almost every day. My own, senior dog had been searching for Mom every time we went to the homestead. This facility allowed well mannered, family dogs, so I brought him to see where Mom was. As soon as he walked into the lobby, eyes lit up and smiles broke out. The atmosphere lifted like the sunrise.
That was it! My next dog would be a certified therapy dog. It was simply magic of the most natural sort. Been doing this ever since.