It is doubtful Willie Nelson had a therapy dog in mind when he recorded “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.” It is what I think each time I see a wonderful, brave therapy dog in action.
I was inspired witnessing the efforts of the therapy dogs deployed to the site of the Boston bombings and to the community of Newtown, Connecticut. It is remarkable how much calm a soft coat and wet nose can bring to a confused and frightened child or an anxious, ailing adult. Therapy dogs are truly angels with four paws and a tail.
Do you watch these magnificent animals in action and think your own dog could also bring a level of comfort to a human in need? Do you want your dog to be a therapy dog? Read on!
More Than a Title
It could be said that all dogs by relationship are therapy dogs. They provide their owners with unconditional devotion and they ask very little in return. Their ability to demonstrate affection and deliver comfort is incomparable.
Reaching the status of “certified” therapy dog involves some training, commitment and a heart that is capable of loads of love.
A therapy dog is NOT a service dog. There is a very clear distinction in the duties and responsibilities of a therapy dog and his human partner and a service dog and his human.
Service dogs are assistants to individuals with disabilities (mobility, sight, hearing and other physical and/or psychiatric issues). These animals are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Service dogs are skilled at helping their human partners adjust to circumstances in a “normal world.” They perform tasks such as; guiding, alerting, offering stability, pulling wheelchairs, carrying medications and protecting individuals suffering from seizures, diabetic shock, severe allergies, autism, even post traumatic disorders to name a few. The ADA title II and title III rules mandate businesses must permit service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas where members of the public are allowed to go.
The basic job of a therapy dog is to make contact with unfamiliar people-and like it. They are tasked with the responsibility of enjoying a child’s hug no matter how clumsy. They should dispense an occasional kiss, endure a stranger’s petting, sit in a lap, lie quietly on a bed, perform a trick, or even accept a treat. Therapy dogs bring comfort to sick, injured, scared people in stressful situations. They are so effective in the ability to generate that special brand of consolation they are used in hospice centers to provide palliative care by reducing death anxiety.
Therapy dogs are NOT protected under the ADA, and they are not provided the same public access rights as service dogs.
License to Learn
Therapy dogs are engaged to provide affection, comfort, entertainment and in some cases educational opportunities to people in:
- Retirement communities
- Nursing homes
- Disaster sites
Therapy dogs come in all breeds (and all mixtures of breeds). They can be any size, shape, color, age or gender. The single most important characteristic for a therapy dog is temperament. A good therapy dog must be:
- At ease in any situation
So, you have an all-round great, well behaved, healthy dog. What is your next step toward therapy dog certification?
Good Citizen Certification
The premier program of training and assessment for a potential therapy dog is the American Kennel Club’s Good Citizen Certification. The AKC offers a testing protocol for certification that is considered by most therapy organizations as a prerequisite. Purebred dogs and mixed breed dogs may participate and learn the fundamentals of the 11 part evaluation.
The first and perhaps most important part of the AKC Good Citizen Test is the dog owner/partner’s critique. Before your dog can be measured, YOU must pass the human part of the evaluation. Owner/partners agree to basic considerations such as:
- Never let dogs infringe on the rights or property of others.
- Always clean up after your dog in public places.
- Care for your dog’s hygiene and appearance.
The dog’s part of the Good Citizen Test is no less stringent. Dogs must exhibit the ability to consistently:
- Accept a friendly stranger
- Sit politely for petting
- Possess a good appearance and grooming
- Walk on a loose lead
- Walk calmly through a crowd
- Sit, down, and stay on command
- Come on command
- Demonstrate non aggressive reaction to another dog
- Maintain calm reactions to distractions
- Tolerate supervised separation from owner
A passing evaluation score earns an official AKC Good Citizen Certificate and the dog may then move on to many specific therapy dog training classes.
In addition to the basic behavior criteria most therapy animal organizations and volunteer agencies require minimum health qualifications for service. Dogs entering therapy assistance programs typically:
- Must be at least 1 year old
- Remain current on all vaccines
- Provide negative fecal tests every 12 months
There are many excellent therapy dog training and certification facilities. Curriculums like the one offered by Pet Partners Animal Program offer assistance for training “both ends of the leash!” Other organizations providing therapy dog training include; the Delta Society, Therapy Dogs Inc. and Therapy Dogs International. The AKC has a comprehensive list of therapy training agencies on its website.
Becoming a therapy dog team with your pet is perhaps one of the most tremendous and rewarding experiences imaginable-for both partners. If you have a remarkable dog with the potential of becoming a therapy dog but you do not have the resources to participate you can volunteer him or her for service. Contact your local agency or any of the organizations listed above. You may also volunteer to be a handler if your dog doesn’t qualify under specific criteria.
Animals other than dogs may also be therapy assistants. There are agencies that accept:
- Guinea pigs
- Domestic rats
- Potbellied pigs
- African gray parrots
The comfort a dog brings to a person in distress is nothing less than amazing. When words defy the scope of a situation a warm furry cuddle, nuzzle, lick or nudge can say it all. Nothing communicates love like a dog. With a little help from four legs and a tail you too may become an “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground!”