Whether working with a child who is struggling with reading, or visiting with nursing home residents, therapy dog teams seek to brighten lives. Therapy teams consist of a therapy dog and a handler. The teams visit facilities such as hospitals, day-care groups, schools and nursing homes to offer companionship and comfort.Therapy teams must be evaluated and registered before they can volunteer to visit facilities. Becoming a therapy dog team requires much preparation and hard work, but those who do it feel it's well worth the effort.
Consider your personality traits. Are you a relaxed person who calmly handles stressful situations? You transmit your emotions to your dog through the leash, so your canine companion quickly picks up on stress or anxiety. You should be able to communicate with your dog and your clients in a positive, gentle manner.
Evaluate your dog's character. Good therapy dogs can be any breed, age or size, but they must have a stable temperament and excellent manners. They must love interacting with and being touched by people. Your dog has to be able to calmly accept new or unusual circumstances.
Practice obedience training. Your dog must walk on a leash without pulling or yanking, and he can never nip at or jump on people when interacting with them. Your dog must respond appropriately when you call him or tell him to sit, stay, lie down or "leave it."
Accustom your dog to visiting new or unusual environments. Therapy dogs must remain relaxed and calm when taken to new places with strange odors, sights and sounds. Take him to community parks, beaches, lakes, dog parks and outdoor events to get him used to a wide variety of settings, loud noises and crowds.
Socialize your dog thoroughly with other dogs and with people of all ages. Consider enrolling her in the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen Program. The classes focus on teaching dogs excellent manners, including allowing strangers to approach, sitting politely for petting, and walking through a crowd. Ask local nursing homes or rehabilitation centers if they would let you bring your dog for visits to accustom her to medical equipment, wheelchairs, and people using crutches, canes and walkers.
Keep your dog current on all required vaccinations. Therapy dogs must be free of disease and parasites. Your dog will have to pass a physical examination before you can become a certified team, so make sure he has a healthy diet and gets regular checkups at the vet.
Find a reputable therapy dog organization in your area, and attend its therapy team training courses. These courses are designed to prepare you and your dog for therapy visits. If there are no local training courses, complete an online training course offered by one of the national therapy dog organizations.
Pass the therapy dog team evaluation. Ask your chosen group to send an evaluator to observe you and your dog working as a team. The tester will evaluate how well you interpret and manage your dog's behavior, and will observe how well your dog responds to you and obeys basic commands. The evaluator also will assess the personality, sociability and energy levels of both you and your dog. If the evaluator concludes that you and your dog have the necessary skills, then you will become a certified therapy dog team.
Register with your chosen therapy dog team organization. Some groups might have you undergo several supervised visits in the field before you can register. Upon your acceptance as a member of the organization, your newly registered dog therapy team should receive something that identifies you as an organization member. Your group might send you membership cards, colorful vests, a certificate or special collar tags for your dog to wear on official visits.
Start your therapy team visits. Before visiting a facility with your dog for the first time, make a quick visit without the dog to get a feel for the place and learn the facility's rules and regulations. Before your first official therapy visit, take your dog into the facility to meet the staff. By the time you visit your clients, you and your dog both will be comfortable in the new surroundings.
No reputable therapy team organization evaluates dogs younger than 12 months of age. Therapy work is often too stressful or exciting for puppies.
Therapy dogs are not service dogs, so they don't have the access rights service dogs have.
Remember that your first responsibility always is to your dog. If you ever feel unsure or uncomfortable in a situation, take your dog out of the facility.
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