Last week, Maisie and I became a certified therapy dog team and what a long and bumpy road we have taken to get here!
A little over two years ago, I received some heartbreaking news about one of my oldest and dearest friends. I felt so helpless at the time and wished that there was something I could do.
A few weeks later, I looked at Maisie and realized that I did have access to a unique skill that could be helpful to others. I did a little research and decided that Maisie and I would start training to become a therapy dog team.
What is a therapy dog? Therapy dogs are specially trained to provide comfort and love to people in hospitals, nursing homes, rehab centers, schools, hospice and other similar facilities. They have also been used in response to natural disasters to comfort those that have been affected. Therapy dogs are not service dogs. Service dogs are trained to aid a specific person with a disability and are legally protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to accompany their owner wherever they go in their daily routine. Therapy dogs have special permission to enter a facility with their handler to perform their task, but when they are not working they must abide by all rules and laws concerning animals in public places. It is unethical for a therapy dog team to assume the rights and protections of a service dog and their handler.
These are the steps of the process we took to reach our goal:
- Know your dog’s temperament: Are they suited to meeting people in unfamiliar, loud or chaotic environments? Are they easily spooked by sudden movements or loud noises? Are they able to adapt quickly to new situations?
- Find a training facility or trainer to learn and reinforce all of the behaviors included in the Canine Good Citizen test. You can learn more about Canine Good Citizen here.
- Continue with higher level training for behaviors expected from a therapy dog. These include: distraction training, ability to ignore other dogs, lack of reaction to loud noises, wheelchairs, strollers, crutches and chaotic environments. A therapy dog must not jump or rush toward someone when meeting them. They must be gentle and able to take a treat from someone without using their teeth. They need to be able to stay in an extended sit or down until they are given a release command. Basically, they need to be completely unaffected by everything around them and able to give affection without overwhelming the recipient. You can learn more about AKC Therapy Dog here.
- Research therapy dog organizations and find the one that is the right fit for you and your dog. It is important to be certified with a therapy dog organization. They provide training, support and education to the dog teams. The organization is the primary contact between the facility requesting the visit and the dog team. Each dog team is objectively evaluated (the dog as well as the handler) to ensure that they are qualified to do the work. Finally, they provide liability insurance for each dog team while they are volunteering. Things to consider during your research include, what type of work do you want to do? How far are you willing to travel? What type of support can you expect from the organization? Feel free to reach out and talk about your questions and what is expected from the dog teams that they certify. Be familiar with the specific steps for you to take to become certified with them i.e. their own classes, observations and evaluations.
- Once you and your dog are ready, fulfill the requirements of the organization you have chosen and start volunteering!
Our first step was to enroll in a training class to get her ready to take the Canine Good Citizen test.
Canine Good Citizen is a title earned from the American Kennel Club (AKC). I found a training facility nearby that had CGC evaluators as part of their training staff. They were able to help us train to all of the different requirements of the test and we wouldn’t have to go elsewhere when we were ready to be evaluated.
Maisie has always been a very easy dog. As a puppy, I was able to quickly train her to basic commands and she has always walked beautifully on her leash. Unfortunately for her, she was so easy that I never enrolled in a training class. As a result, she was under the impression that whenever we were around other dogs, they should all be her friend and playmate. Our biggest and most difficult training challenge was to teach her to ignore other dogs and focus completely on me. It took longer than I expected, we had to take a few breaks in her training (a couple of family emergencies and bringing home a puppy who also needed to be trained) but once she passed the CGC, we moved into the therapy dog class.
The training facility that we went to worked closely with Canine Therapy Corps. The trainers were familiar with their test and expectations. I read about their work but I also wanted to check out the other organizations in my area so that I could be sure about my choice. Whenever possible, I talked to people that also did therapy work with their dogs, getting their advice, and learning from their experiences with different organizations. The AKC website has a lot of information about therapy dogs which includes a nationwide list of organizations. (You can read the list here.) I scrolled through the list, noting the ones that I had already looked into and noticed one in Illinois I hadn’t heard of. When I clicked on their link, everything I read about them was exactly what I was looking for. That’s how I found Sit Stay Read.
Sit Stay Read is an amazing organization of people dedicated to improving reading and literacy skills for children enrolled in Chicago Public Schools. My next post is about my experience with them.