A number of AnimalSense clients tell us that they’re interested in getting their dog into an animal assisted therapy program (AAT – informally known as pet therapy) so I thought I’d share some personal experiences and a few lessons learned.
In 1999, I decided I had the perfect dog for AAT so I did some research, learned that a test was required and found a testing site. On the evening of the test we drove forty miles in a mid-level blizzard to get tested. We arrived to find that the tester was using a location at which several dog classes were to be held at the same time as her evaluations. Had we not driven so far, I would have backed out since I had real doubts that Molly, my Newfoundland, or I would pass under those conditions. In addition, I didn’t have any idea where we would volunteer even if we successfully passed the test. It turns out it was fortunate that I didn’t leave. I started chatting with the person next to me about the fact that I had no idea what do if we passed. She told me how she had set up programs with various hospitals and other facilities and had a solid infrastructure in place but not a lot of volunteer teams. When she asked me where I lived – which it turned out to be a mile from her house –it was the start of a beautiful friendship and AAT relationship. Molly and I passed the test and were able to immediately start visiting two local hospitals. I’ve since been certified with two of my other dogs and my daughter has joined the program as well. (In the interest of full disclosure, some other staff and clients of Animal Sense belong to Delta Society, as well, and its affiliate Paws-4-Patients, Inc.). Molly and I were an amazing therapy team for 11 ½ years until I lost her last year.
I do know that I got incredibly lucky, and if I was starting out now there are a few things it would have been nice to know.
There are a number of national organizations and a lot of local ones and it’s important to find the one that’s right for you. For example, some AAT organizations work exclusively with children. If you’re only interested in volunteering with children that might be a good fit. However, it’s good to keep in mind that what you think you want and what you may actually like (or what’s best for your dog) may change over time. When I first started out I would never have imagined going to volunteer in a hospice program, but I was happy I was in an organization that had that as an option.
Good AAT organizations provide liability insurance for anything that may happen while you are visiting, have cleanliness and infection control procedures, and have certain rules that protect you, your dog and the people that you’re visiting. While the likelihood of anything happening may be small, it’s good to be protected. Facilities also appreciate the added protection and are more open to AAT visits if an organization presents thorough and well-thought out rules for visiting.
Generally if your dog can pass the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizenship Test, there’s a good chance you’ll pass as an AAT team. Many organizations rank AAT dogs based on test results and experience – beginner dogs get a basic certification and can only visit certain types of people or facilities, others get intermediate or complex certifications. Keep in mind that even the best dogs take a while to get used to the unusual settings you’ll be visiting. Medical facilities in particular have lots of sounds, smells and sights that aren’t seen in everyday life.
It not only requires the right temperament from your dog, you the handler need certain traits as well. For example, if you are in a hospital setting whether you’re working one on one with a therapist and the patient or just visiting a patient’s room with your dog you need to establish a good rapport with the patient (without of course prying into their medical issues). While there’s a lot of focus on the dogs, patients are also often happy to have another human to talk to so you need to be friendly and respectful.
It’s possible that your dog may find AAT work too stressful and you will need to learn to recognize signs of stress in your dog. You need to be an advocate for your dog and if the session goes on too long, you need to stop. If your dog (or you) don’t like AAT it’s better for all to stop participating in the program.
AAT can be a wonderful experience for you and your dog. If you decide to pursue the work, I hope you have as fulfilling a time as Molly and I did.