Would Your Dog Make a Good Therapist?

Youd be surprised how many dogs can learn to heal.


The wheels on the bus go
Ruff Ruff Ruff…

Debra Gibbs’s shih tzu is “a little spoiled diva,” by Gibb’s own account. “Boo has always had a very good life,” Ms. Gibbs says. Yet “you can tell she’s growing” through her work as a therapy dog. She can even delight children with special needs and thereby help them adjust more easily by inserting “ruff ruff ruff” where “round round round” usually goes in the Wheels on the Bus song. Ms. Gibbs taught that to her.

“Boo gets that she’s helping people,” Ms. Gibbs says. Normally, “she doesn’t like being kissed and hugged. But if she’s working with someone who needs that, she’s okay with it. She’ll even sit in someone’s lap for them. She’s using her instinctive senses, and dogs are so much more sensitive to people’s energy level and body language compared to other people. I strongly believe that dogs [who represent more than 90 percent of therapy animals] and other therapy animals [like miniature horses, teacup pigs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, alpacas, and llamas] get a lot out of it — provided their handler, who is usually the owner, is there with them.” In other words, providing therapy proves rewarding and enriching for dog owners as well as for the dogs themselves.

And there’s so much dogs can do, depending on their temperaments. Energetic dogs who like to excitedly run up to people in greeting work well for college students who need stress relief during finals and can handle the physicality (and do at universities like Tufts). Dogs with a gentler approach might do better in a nursing home or assisted living facility or with children who might be unnerved or led off task by a super-active dog.

For instance, says Ms. Gibbs, a veterinary technician (nurse) who heads Tufts Paws for People, a non-profit organization affiliated with the Cummings School whose purpose is to help train therapy dogs and make good fits between different dogs and different therapeutic settings, “we did a reading project in Grafton [Massachusetts].

“In one of the schools, we were working with kids for four weeks in an after-school reading program — checking their progress and enthusiasm for reading against that of kids who didn’t have access to therapy animals. Their rate of speed in their reading, their confidence levels, and their enthusiasm and willingness to read academic materials went up compared to the other group. The only difference between the two groups is that one read to animals.” But the dogs involved had to be calm, steady, able to sit still, like the children. Their role was to simply be right there when the handler said, “Boo wants to know what the word ‘conversation’ means” in order to check the child’s level of reading comprehension, or, if a student got stuck on a word, “Boo thinks the word might be…”

“That’s a non-threatening approach” for a child who might otherwise be uncomfortable about taking the risk to learn something for which he doesn’t have confidence,” Ms. Gibbs says. “It’s astonishingly effective. By bringing the dog into the therapeutic equation, you increase the likelihood that the learning experience becomes pleasurable for the kids — and thus they’re likely to practice more often and for longer periods of time, making the therapy all the more likely to get the person to their goal. I have experienced this a multitude of times,” she adds. “It’s very, very powerful.”

Therapy dogs can be useful — and have their own lives made more interesting — in all kinds of settings. They can work with occupational and physical therapists to help people gain muscle strength and mobility (what can be more motivating than an eager dog egging you on); help people on the autism spectrum who have trouble transitioning from one activity to another; and even work alongside speech therapists. “If a dog is taught to respond to hand signals as well as to vocal cues,” Ms. Gibbs says, “then the owner/handler can stand behind the person who’s practicing his speech — perhaps a stroke victim or a child with developmental delays. When the patient is trying to say ‘Sit’ or ‘Down,’ the owner can cue the dog by hand to do what the person is attempting to articulate. That’s positive feedback for the individual that then makes them try even harder. It’s sort of like using a reward, or lure, to help the person practice something that they are not finding especially enjoyable.”

In one instance, a dog helped someone in an adolescent psychiatric unit leave his room. This particular individual wouldn’t go through the door. “But we started bringing in a dog and saying, ‘This room is kind of small,'” Ms. Gibbs relates. “‘Let’s go to the other room. It’s a little bigger and has nice windows that face outside, and you can visit with the dog.’ Through that first little push, he was able to take the steps to return to school. In fact, he actually was able to return home. Of course, that wasn’t just due to the dog. The child had lots of therapeutic interventions. But this particular one was very helpful because you’re not saying, ‘You have to get out of this room because it’s good for you.’ Instead, it’s positive reinforcement.”

Not all therapy dogs are involved in such complicated work. Many, in fact, simply relieve loneliness or cheer up people who aren’t able to get out a lot or who once had a dog but no longer can. In fact, Ms. Gibbs’s short answer to the question of what therapy dogs do is “make people smile.” In other words, there are many scenarios in which your dog would very likely make a terrific therapy dog, adding a lot of interest to a life that otherwise might be spent largely waiting to go on the next walk.

But you can’t just decide to take your dog to a nursing home or other public setting one day. There are steps involved.

How your pet can earn a ‘therapy dog’ designation

There are a number of different national organizations and also state organizations that either register or certify a dog as a therapy animal once the pet and her owner go through required training and pass an exam. But Tufts Paws for People (www.vet.tufts.edu/paws) is a community partner of an international organization called Pet Partners (formerly known as the Delta Society).

Tufts likes this program, Ms. Gibbs says, because it “translates” across international borders. If you go through training in Massachusetts and need a refresher course after moving to California, Canada, Australia, or certain European countries, it’s going to be the same course. It also requires rigorous testing of the animal-human team, which needs to be repeated every two years. And it has excellent health and safety standards and is the only national organization that requires training for the person as well as the dog (or other animal).

Specifically, the owner (or handler, if the person making the visits with the dog will not be the owner) has to go through an 8-hour course. “After the owner completes the course,” Ms. Gibbs says, “and they feel ready, they come in for an evaluation.”

The testing takes about 40 minutes, with 22 different exercises that the dog and her owner have to do together. Some are for basic obedience — walking politely on a leash, walking politely through a crowd, “Sit,” Down,” “Stay,” and so on. (“We alter the obedience exercises that have to be completed for different species,” Ms. Gibbs says, “because good luck getting a cat to sit.”)

The second half of the evaluation consists of mock scenarios “that occur very frequently when you and your dog are visiting various facilities,” Ms. Gibbs relates. As an example, a tester will act over-excited to see the dog and pet the animal in a very clumsy manner, against rather than with the hair pattern. She or he will also act like a young child, with a high-pitched, loud voice, and touch the dog’s stomach, lips, and nose.

“What we’re looking for,” Ms. Gibbs says, “is a dog that is tolerant, along with a handler/owner who says, ‘Fluffy doesn’t like that, but what she does love is being scratched underneath the ear.’ We want to make sure the owner is supporting her pet.

“We also do an exercise during which a tester uses a walker and wears a baseball cap and floppy robe and approaches the dog with a loud, monotone voice. We’re looking to see that the dog doesn’t get put off. The robe has fringe at the hem, while the walker has tennis balls at the bottom. Can the animal deal with all that, and can the owner support the animal under the circumstances in a way that’s consistent with being polite in public?

“About 30 percent of dogs don’t pass the first time through,” Ms. Gibbs says. “We had a dog who couldn’t focus on anything but the tennis balls at the bottom of the walker. That’s okay. There’s no limit to how many times a dog/owner team can try.”

The only exclusionary rule is that the dog has to be at least one year of age to be eligible for testing. “A younger animal is more fragile physically and has less predictable behaviors,” Ms. Gibbs comments. But otherwise, the door is wide open. “We have dogs with amputations, dogs who are visually impaired, arthritic, older, and they all make wonderful therapy animals. They can even have a more powerful impact than a physically perfect dog.

“Some of the kids have physical disabilities,” Ms. Gibbs says. “Seeing a well adjusted dog with a physical challenge makes a difference for them. One golden retriever in the program, Ilsa, has only three legs but she doesn’t feel bad for herself. She’s like, ‘give me a treat. Throw the ball.’ That delivers a powerful subliminal message to children with physical compromises.”

Is this right for your dog?

It’s very important that your dog be a social animal, Ms. Gibbs says. “We certainly don’t want to encourage people with very shy or fearful dogs to pursue this. We want the animal to enjoy what she’s doing.” On the flip side, “we don’t want overly bouncy, jumpy animals if they’re going to be working with elders or a fragile population,” she makes clear.

That said, Ms. Gibbs explains that “there are plenty of people with animals that start out reserved or overly exuberant at first who make great therapy dogs. We have a huge number of animals adopted from shelters, older dogs, and no one knows what their background is,” and they may not be up to the task at first, but with proper training they turn out to be terrific therapy animals.

“Training a dog is mostly about socializing it,” Ms. Gibbs explains. “If they have good obedience skills and are very friendly but never go into unusual situations, you have to bring them where there are different people, different floor surfaces. I advise people to bring their dogs to Petco and PetSmart. Those stores have so many distractions — odors, noises, kids who come straight up to the dog and want to pet her, shiny linoleum. So we recommend those settings to all our potential handlers who want to ready their dog for the testing.

“Also,” Ms. Gibbs says, “put a toddler’s t-shirt on your dog and write ‘Therapy Dog in Training’ with a magic marker, along with ‘Ask to pet me — I’m friendly.’ That gets your dog used to allowing you to tell people to come say hello to them.”

During the warm weather, “you can also practice in parking lots next to playgrounds or parks where kids are playing T-ball and making lots of noise,” Ms. Gibbs says. “You can also go to Loews or Home Depot or similar big box stores. You have to ask first, but many of those stores will let your dog in. Then your animal gets used to the odors — all that sawed wood — and to the noises in a cavernous, echoey space. That’s important because conversations will sound different to a dog in a facility other than your living room. There’ll be different flooring, too — either linoleum or poured concrete, like in the large home-reno stores. New floor surfaces can be very disconcerting for dogs, so stores are a good place to practice.”

Then, when you feel your dog is ready, you can test together. You have two years to test after you’ve taken the 8-hour course for yourself. Once you pass and provide proof of a professional health screening, Pet Partners sends you a two-year membership packet with a membership fee that averages around $90. (Some people qualify for discounts.) Membership provides liability insurance — critical in case a mishap occurs in which equipment at a facility is damaged or someone is injured.

It’s “a lot of fun to be involved in,” Ms. Gibbs says. “Really cool stuff.” And you’ll be amazed at what your dog can do that you never thought possible. “The dogs even start to figure out when they’re getting ready to go to ‘work.’

“Boo doesn’t wear a collar in the house,” Ms. Gibbs explains. “So when I bathe her and groom her thoroughly, then put the collar on, she knows she’s going to visit with people. She knows” it’s going to be different.

Dogs become so well attuned to the routine that “on the west coast,” she says, “pet therapy” or “animal visitation,” as it is also known, “has become widely accepted as a primary therapy and is sometimes reimbursable by insurance. We would like to see that level of acceptance here on the east coast, too.

“I don’t think we’ve even really begun to tap into the possibilities of what you can do with animals,” Ms. Gibbs opines. “It’s endless.”


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