Could Your Dog become a Therapy Dog?
Therapy dogs can be any size and any breed of dog – from a tiny Yorkshire terrier to an Irish Wolfhound; what counts is whether they are in suitable health and have the correct temperament for therapy dog activities. There are a range of roles that therapy dogs can be considered for – from visiting elderly people in care homes, to helping children to read in schools.
It is a very worthwhile volunteering path to take if you have a few hours to spare and a suitable four legged companion to help you. If you are interested in applying to become a volunteer therapy dog handler Holidays4Dogs provides some information on what to think about and how to go about it.
In the UK, therapy dogs differ from assistance dogs in that they are considered to benefit people in a therapeutic way in a broad range of settings; whereas registered assistance dogs are trained to carry out specific tasks for a disabled person and are generally trained professionally by one of the organisations who are registered with Assistance Dogs UK – these will include Guide Dogs for the Blind and Hearing Dogs for the Deaf.
In addition, a registered assistance dog is allowed to accompany their owners everywhere, including shops, public transport etc, whereas therapy dogs do not have these same legal benefits.
The best place to start is to get in touch with a registered charitable organisation – the largest being Pets As Therapy (or PAT dogs). A new charity named Therapy Dogs Nationwide started in 2016 also works with volunteers and their temperament tested dogs.
To apply, you must have owned your dog for at least six months and he must be aged nine months or more. All dogs must pass a temperament test to make sure they are friendly with all sorts of people, happy to be petted and not spooked by novel situations.
Other considerations are that your dog must be generally calm and well-behaved, walk nicely on a loose lead (no jumping up!), they need to be able to take titbits gently, happy to be groomed, have a nice clean coat and skin and not suffer from health issues.
You can apply to the organisation by requesting an application form and returning it. If your paper application is successful, you will be visited by an assessor at your home. Your dog must have up to date vaccinations and flea treatments. You will also need to supply the names and addresses of two people who can provide references for you and in order to assist with the costs involved, an annual subscription of 19 pounds is requested.
How might my dog fail the temperament test?
It is vitally important that your dog is calm and well behaved while visiting vulnerable or sick people. If your dog displays any of the characteristics below, he will be ‘deferred’ – if you are able to address the issues you can re-apply in another 6 months time – but otherwise, your dog will not be suitable in a PAT dog role. This doesn’t mean he is a bad dog; but assessors must abide by strict criteria as the dogs must be able to behave in predictable ways, in sometimes unpredictable situations where they are being intensely handled/petted. The main reasons why dogs are rejected are;
Jumping up – this behaviour could potentially cause injury by knocking over an elderly person for example.
Pawing, up putting up one or both paws – again, this can cause injury particularly to older people with delicate skin.
Backing away when being petted – any dog that displays a reluctance to be patted, or shows signs of anxiety will not be passed.
Barking/Growling – obviously this sort of behaviour could be seen as quite threatening to old people or children, which is the opposite of how a PAT dog needs to behave.
Mouthing/Licking – again this can cause potential injury and licking is not accepted on hygiene grounds.
Snatching food – anything that involves teeth to skin contact including snatching titbits would likewise be unacceptable.
What happens if I am accepted? How much time will I need to allocate?
If you and your dog are accepted onto the PAT team you will be allocated with an establishment which is close to your home and convenient for you to get to. There is no set requirement for how often you need to attend visits, but regular visits – usually for no more than an hour each time – are always very much appreciated.
There are different areas where therapy dogs can be of great benefit. For the elderly who live in care homes or attend day care and are no longer able to look after a pet of their own, having the opportunity to interact with a PAT dog can bring a great deal of comfort and happiness. Dogs have long been known to lower heart rate and boost mood, so regular visits from therapy dogs supports both medical and nursing care for many individuals.
Where children and adults are in hospital with diseases such as cancer, a visit from a therapy dog can help to lift spirits – even for those who are not especially dog lovers.
There are other areas where PAT dogs can be of benefit such as stroke rehabilitation, people with mental health issues and Therapy Dogs Nationwide operates prison visits.
One of the newer innovations is therapy dogs who work with children in the classroom, helping them to read. PAT dogs can also help with children with emotional or behavioural needs by boosting self esteem and confidence.
For dog lovers, employing your dog in a therapy role can be extremely rewarding – all temperament tested dogs love their work and it is a great way to give back to the community. If you are inspired to become a volunteer with Pets as Therapy here is the link for further information and application form.