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.
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?