You and your dog have finished your therapy dog training. You’ve passed your evaluation, and the two of you have earned the title of certified therapy dog team. Now – where will you visit? Too often people jump into visiting a facility without giving much thought to where they and their dogs would best fit in.
A word of advice: choose wisely. To insure a successful visiting experience for you and your dog, as well as the person or persons you visit, BOTH ends of the leash must fit the chosen environment.
When my first therapy dog Beatrice and I started visiting as a therapy dog team back in 1992, we had no choices available to us. Today, a myriad of possibilities exist, and visiting therapy dog teams are in great demand. Nursing homes were the norm when Beatrice and I first visited. Fortunately, Beatrice was a perfect nursing home visitor, and I was immediately drawn to visiting the elderly. Many of them had to relinquish their beloved dog to a shelter, or if lucky, to a relative, when their health required they enter a nursing home. Many, we soon learned, had no other visitors during the week except Beatrice and me. Watching their faces light up when Bea arrived each Friday afternoon at 1:00, filled me with great joy. Beatrice was their dog every Friday for nine years, just weeks before her passing from a brain tumor.
Doors to more healthcare environments began to open at the turn of the decade, and it was my second therapy dog Trudi who piloted the first therapy dog program at the Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, Massachusetts. Trudi proved to be the perfect hospital visitor – with all the hustle-and-bustle that occurs in hospital corridors that are lined with all finds of medical equipment. Hospitals provide an entirely different environment from that found in a nursing home. A hospital therapy dog must be extremely even-keeled. Trudi was a retired show dog who had spent a great deal of time in the show ring. She remained unruffled by strange sights and sounds. Her experience prepared her well for the hospital environment.
The very exuberant dog that likes to be in constant motion isn’t suited for the hospital environment. That said, a therapy dog with this type of personality is perfect, and well-received, in a locked psychiatric facility. This was my therapy dog Julia. She was a happy-go-lucky girl who would work her way around the lounge of the special locked unit we visited together for five years. She was a dog that always had a smile on her face and a skip in her step. She’d spend a little time with one patient, then move to the next. She seemed to sense when a patient needed more time with her. Folks often remarked about her out-going personality. She lifted their troubled spirits. It was a great thing to watch.
Julia’s brother James was my special hospice therapy dog. James was the opposite of his sister. He would lay for hours along side a hospice patient in bed, his head resting gently on her chest. He was there to be comforter and quiet listener. He was there to be touched. His calming presence offering relief from pain.
Recently, more and more schools are realizing the benefit a therapy dog can be to a student struggling with academic or social and emotional issues. It’s in the school setting where my two current therapy dogs King and Lily work. They love interacting with kids. They eat up all the attention they get from them. In turn, they provide a friendly, non-judgmental, non-threatening listener. It’s very rewarding to learn that your dog has been instrumental in the academic and emotional advancement of the students he/she has interacted with.
I can’t stress enough the importance of finding your team’s special niche. Definitely for the dog, but equally so for the human component of the team. I once told a volunteer that her dog would be perfect for hospice work. She looked at me like I had two heads, saying, OH NO! We couldn’t do that. Surely, there’s some other place we could visit. I quickly shifted gears by telling her about all the different types of visiting environments we have on our list of visiting opportunities for Bright Spot certified therapy dog teams. These include: adult daycare, assisted living/retirement communities, group homes, nursing homes and rehabilitiation centers, pubic libraries, public and private schools both day and residential, psychiatric units, alzheimer’s units, and schools for learning and behavioral disabilities. And, within these categories, we have over 85 facilities requesting our visiting therapy dog teams.
So many choices. So many opportunities to provide comfort and caring through the human-canine bond. Take your time in making your choice. It will make the difference in getting hooked on this meaningful work, or doing it for a year, then giving it up. I’ve been hooked since the very first day Beatrice and I made our first visit! It’s a wonderful feeling.