By Ann-Marie L’Etoile
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What is a “therapy dog?” By definition, a therapy dog is a dog trained to provide a therapeutic benefit to the general public in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, hospices, disaster areas and to people with learning difficulties. Not every dog can be trained to be a therapy dog. It takes a special personality, not only of the dog, but also of the handler. There are many organizations that certify teams of dog and handler, ensuring that the dogs have been assessed as having the correct temperament as well as training to be under control at all times during a visit.
The most common misconception about therapy dogs is that they can go everywhere, with all access to public locations. This is far from the truth. Therapy dogs can only go where they are invited and accepted in the performance of their work. Therapy dogs are not assistance dogs. There are three types of assistance dogs: Guide Dogs for the blind, Hearing Dogs for the deaf, and Service Dogs for people with disabilities that require the assistance of a dog. These dogs, under the Americans with Disability Act, can go anywhere their handler goes.
Another misconception is that therapy dog teams are paid. This again, is far from the truth. Therapy teams volunteer their time completely.
Being a therapy team is one of the most rewarding things a dog and owner can do. Therapy teams share a certain “calling” to help people. A therapy dog does not have to be a pure bred, American Kennel Club-titled canine. Many therapy dogs get their start from the local animal rescues. The only thing necessary is a good temperament and a willingness to give from the heart. As a handler, there is nothing better than seeing a smile come to a memory care patient who can’t communicate as his or her hand stretches to pet the dog’s head; doing a reading program where the dog lays on the ground as a child pets their head as they read to them, sharing every page of pictures as if the dog can totally understand the story; or giving someone in the hospital, either patient or family, a few minutes of decompression while petting a dog.
Maybe you have seen a therapy dog at work, or perhaps you have seen one and not even realized it. Therapy dogs are now being used in airports to calm nervous passengers before their flights. They are also being used for cancer patients during the long ordeal of chemotherapy, especially for children. Many hospital waiting rooms are utilizing therapy dogs to help those waiting for family members in surgery. Schools are utilizing therapy dogs to help with reading programs. It is much easier to read aloud to a dog that will not judge or make fun of poor reading skills. Many times during a disaster, television news reports using search and rescue dogs to look for survivors, but what you may not see are the teams of therapy dogs that come from hundreds of miles away to help those who have lost so much.
Being a therapy team is not for the faint of heart. It can be difficult work, but being a therapy team is the highest privilege a dog and handler can achieve, sharing compassion for others.