Fortunately, therapy dogs almost never end up responding to a mass trauma event like the Boston Marathon Bombing or, say, the shootings in a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school. They are more likely to be involved in one-on-one situations with a hospital or nursing home patient or small group situations, say, at a home for adolescents at risk.
Consider the case of Boo, a shih tzu belonging to Tufts veterinary technician Debra Gibbs, who serves as program coordinator for the Cummings School’s Paws for People program. Boo was sent with Ms. Gibbs to help an elderly woman who fell during a hurricane and broke her hip. She needed surgery to repair the hip, but as happens with a number of elderly people who undergo anesthesia, she lost a great deal of her cognitive abilities for several weeks. She became belligerent and didn’t want to cooperate — a problem since after the operation, she was sent to a rehabilitation facility to strengthen her leg enough to be able to walk again.
But no one could convince her to exercise, and she was at risk of being released and sent to a nursing home, where she would only decline further. Boo saved the day, however.
The woman had been refusing an exercise that required her to push her arms down on a pair of pedals with a wheel in the middle in order to increase her upper arm strength so she could use a walker. But when Ms. Gibbs sat with Boo on her lap and worked the pedals with the dog, the woman would laugh hysterically. And that jollied her into trying it. Now, walking again, she’s back in her own home.
In another instance, there was a little boy whose gross motor skills were severely compromised, and he was not going to be able to walk unless he exercised his leg muscles. He was supposed to push himself with his legs while sitting in a chair suspended from bars that let his feet touch the ground, but he would just twirl around in the seat and laugh rather than use it to propel himself forward. But with a dog on a long leash tied to the apparatus (and a shorter leash held by the dog’s handler) the boy would walk together with the animal; the dog gave him the incentive he needed to strengthen his leg muscles.
In many cases, therapy dogs and other therapy animals simply visit with people, keeping them company to lift their spirits, or maybe providing some distraction and relief from stress, which is known to lower blood pressure.
There are a number of organizations that teach people and their pets how to become therapy teams, but Tufts’s Paws for People partners only with Pet Partners, headquartered in Bellevue, Washington, to train its animal-human therapy teams. “We like it because as an international organization, it allows you to train in one place and move across the country, or even across the ocean, and still be able to apply what you learned,” says Ms. Gibbs. Also, she says, “they are the only organization that requires training for handlers” as well as for the pets. And they test the pets to see if they have the personality to make a good therapy dog — whether they have an aptitude for this kind of work. For instance, Ms. Gibbs says, some dogs react very aggressively or shyly to people wearing a hat, and it becomes a safety issue. Your dog does not have to get an A+ in obedience, but he does need to be able to follow your directions. “Pet Partners programs test dogs for suitability, but not all groups necessarily do. That’s just a small part of what makes it a superior program.”
Training for people interested in doing visitation with their own animal consists of an 8-hour workshop. The dog (or other animal) handler learns not just what makes a good visitation animal but also about issues around insurance and various policies and procedures. For instance, you can’t just show up at a facility. “It’s not polite, and it’s not professional,” says Ms. Gibbs. In fact, the Tufts-based Paws for People approached various constituencies traumatized by the Marathon bombings to see if they were interested in having therapy animals come by. The group didn’t force itself on anyone.
Often, Ms. Gibbs says, a whole family will get involved, each learning how to be a handler of a therapy pet. It’s a wonderful way for people, teenagers included, to pay forward the joy a pet brings.
For more information, check out petpartners.org. By clicking on your state in the Affiliate Group Directory, you can see where there’s a Pet Partners group in your area, learn specifics about what’s required of both you and your dog, learn how to interact with people new to you and your pet, and much, much more.