As many of you know I recently presented a seminar on animal assisted therapy in Naples Florida. (Yes, it’ll be out as a DVD later this winter. Happy Dance!) One of the motivations for doing the seminar was the number of clients I had who wanted me to help them prepare their dog for therapy work. Sometimes it was like swimming downstream on a warm, cozy river. Their dog was a perfect fit and ended up doing wonderful work in the community. Other times… well, it was reminiscent of trying to paddle up a cold, frothy waterfall. The fact is, therapy work can be hard work, and it takes a special kind of dog to be both good at it and to enjoy it. The directors of AAA and AAT (AAActivities and AATherapy) will tell you that one of their greatest challenges is working with people who want to volunteer but whose dogs just don’t qualify. Here’s a summary of the characteristics of a good therapy dog prospect, in hopes it will be helpful for those who are interested in doing this wonderful work:
Affiliative: This seems like a no-brainer, but the fact is that many dogs are presented for therapy work who really don’t like strangers all that much. They love their owners and good friends, but aren’t all that interested in other people. Good therapy dogs need to be the kind of dogs who ADORE people, all people, and want nothing more than to connect with them. It is, after all, the emotional connection that is often the therapeutic part of AAA and AAT. It seems to me that dogs sort into 4 categories: 1) adore people, care little for other dogs, 2) adore dogs, care little for unfamiliar people, 3) adore members of both species and are thrilled to meet new ones and 4) adore neither dogs or people, except maybe their owner. Needless to say, only categories 1 and 3 are good therapy prospects.
Physically Calm: Many of the dogs who think all people hung the moon regrettably don’t fit into this category. Leaping, licking, pawing and body slamming just don’t work in senior centers and hospitals. This is why so many dogs don’t qualify when they are young, but could be great prospects when they are older. I wrote a chapter with Aubrey Fine for his great book The Handbook of Animal Assisted Therapy, and we had a long discussion about how many dogs would be GREAT for therapy work when they are six. Or eight. Or ten, but their owners get them evaluated at the age of two, the dogs are not “passed” and their owners never try again.
Psychologically Sound and Non-reactive: It doesn’t matter how much training or conditioning you do, therapy dogs need a certain level of rock solid soundness to be good prospects. Of course, the context does matter: some dogs are great in senior centers but are uncomfortable around children and would be disasters in a children’s hospital. It’s important to remember that AAA and AAT include a vast range of experiences, so every dog must be evaluated based on what they are going to be doing. But it’s still essential to keep in mind that although your job is in part to protect your dog, once you are inside a facility you will have limited control over what happens. And what can happen (someone grabbing your dog, weird noisy medical equipment coming on, a medical crisis that results in tremendous chaos) is sometimes enough to terrify a sensitive dog.
Included in this category, although albeit somewhat different conceptually, is the state of being “emotionally mature” or able to handle frustration and deal with the world with a calm, measured demeanor. Again, just as in people, sometimes this takes several years to master.
Ridiculously clean and healthy: Unless you work in health care facilities it is easy to forget how differently sanitation needs to be handled in facilities and hospitals than it does in your own home. Pet Pals here in Madison, which organizes visits to the Children’s Hospital through the UW Vet School, requires that all dogs in the program go through extensive veterinary evaluations twice a year. This includes an entire day of testing for a vast range of diseases, from salmonella to MRSA. In this case the dogs are visiting children who are often immune compromised, and so their requirements are more stringent than some, but any facility, from a senior center to a hospital, is a very, very different place than your home. Germs love the kind of places that therapy dogs go to visit, and they can move around like wild-fire within very vulnerable populations.
Aware of their Job? This is gravy, pure gravy, but the fact is that some dogs do more than happily sit with strangers or participate in structured therapy treatment plans, as beneficial as that can be to some people. These dogs seem to sense why they are there, and seek out people who are especially needy, and make an emotional connection with them that changes their life. These connections happen, and hearing about them is enough to make you all gooey-eyed. Special stuff indeed.
I’ll leave the training and evaluations required to be a registered therapy team for another blog, but I thought it’d be interesting to ask all of you to add to this list–specifically, what type of personality do you think a therapy dog needs to be successful? If you’ve either had a working AAA or AAT dog, or been the beneficiary of one, I’d love to hear what criteria you’d put on the list. FYI, I’ll write another time about what the handler at the other end of the leash needs (a list too often ignored!), and some good books for people interested in getting involved, but right now I’d like to think about the dogs themselves. Aside from training for specific cues and conditioning to things like medical equipment, what traits do you think good therapy dogs need?
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: It was eight below (Fahrenheit) when I got up yesterday morning, three below today. I think the high is expected to be around eight or so, and we’re expecting 2 to 7 inches of snow tomorrow (2 to 7? that’s a big difference!). I wish I didn’t have to drive to town to get ready to start teaching at the university (“The Biology and Philosophy of Human/Animal Relationships”), but still it’ll be sort of fun to get the snow. If it had been snowing all winter I’d be tired of it, but we’ve hardly had any winter at all til now, so it feels sort of good in some strange, possibly masochistic kind of way.
The great news is that Tootsie, who began her life here explaining to me that her paws did not participate in wet or cold, now trots happily outside in the worst of weather, does her business and then runs, ears flapping and tongue lolling, back into the garage. When we got her as a puppy mill dog she understandably had no concept of going outside and eliminating on cue right away, and then going right back in if the weather was inclement. She’d stand at the end of the garage and look plaintive and miserable, but refuse to go out. And even in great weather, once out she’d sniff and sniff and sniff and sniff… you get the idea. What a great reminder of how handy it is to put peeing and pooping on cue.
And now you should see her! Out she runs, does her business and then runs back in… while Willie stays outside and looks at me like “WHAT? Go back inside now? Whatever for?” So Tootsie goes back inside and Willie and I play outside for awhile. I should tell you though that yesterday there was one time, during the coldest part of the morning, when she did refuse to go out. But she’d been outside to pee recently, and I took it as “Truly, I don’t have to go at all, and it’s really, really cold. Would it work for you if I stayed inside this time?” And indeed it did. Honor your dog, right? The next time I took her out her bladder was fuller, and out she went, did her business and ran to me for her treat. Now, I just have to work on her barking if she sees me and Willie outside through the window… One thing at a time!
Willie is good good good. His shoulder seems good (almost afraid to write that) and he’s loving everyone he meets lately. He still isn’t buddies with Tootsie. They STILL ignore each other, it’s a bit strange sometimes, but he is very tolerant of her and the only sign of problems I see is when I come home she has taken over our greeting rituals. Rather than being all over me, Willie runs to get a toy and lets her get the first attention. I’m not liking that, I think he is a bit frustrated, but doesn’t like competing with Tootsie for attention, and unwilling to get into any conflict about it… I’ll be working on that in the near future too. Never a dull moment with dogs, hey?
Why do I live in a place that can be colder in the winter than the inside of your freezer? Here’s the reason: Sunrise yesterday. Eight below. And a sky simply too beautiful for words…