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Becoming a Therapy Animal and Handler.

All around the northwest, there are animals of all kinds that work as therapy animals and bring joy to many folks. Some of the animals at Animals as Natural Therapy visit retirement homes and horses on the farm help at-risk youth and veterans connect in a different but utterly meaningful way. Rojo the llama and his friends have brought joy and wonder to many in the Portland, OR area. Scientific research on the benefits of therapy animals is still new, as there really isn’t much. But one study from the University of British Columbia confirms that time with dogs can really boost student wellness!

It is important to note that therapy animals are NOT service animals or emotional support animals but are privately owned animals that visit facilities and places to provide affection and comfort to people. Unlike service or emotional support animals, therapy animals do not have any federally protected rights but that doesn’t change the fact that they do provide an incredible service to many!

Graphic from Orvis News

Additionally, these animals tend to be only half of the equation, as a responsible handler is just as important. While therapy animals may work with all kinds of folks in a variety of settings, they will always be accompanied by their handler/owner.

Types of Therapy Animals

There are three types of therapy animals and each type is slightly different from the other.

Therapeutic Visitation

These therapy animals are what many might think of, as they are usually household pets who visit hospitals, nursing home, detention facilities, and other places with their owners. These animals help to bring joy to folks who might be away from their own pets for whatever reason. Therapy animals who do therapeutic visitations are usually just your average person and their dog who have gone through training and certification.

Animal Assisted Therapy

According to Psychology Today, animal-assisted therapy is “a therapeutic intervention that incorporates animals, such as horses, dogs, cats, pigs, and birds, into the treatment plan. It is used to enhance and complement the benefits of traditional therapy.” This type of therapy animal helps physical and occupational therapists with their clients and help meet different goals in a person’s recovery.

These therapy animals help folks with motion in limbs, fine motor control, or even regaining pet care skills and will often work in rehabilitation facilities. For example, patients may walk with dogs after surgery or major health scare to regain strength and mobility.

Facility Therapy

Facility therapy dogs are handled by professionals like therapists/counselors, psychologists, and rehabilitation therapists in a specific facility/building. These dogs are highly trained and skilled, as they are used to enhance the lives and care for children, adults with disabilities or different needs, and seniors. Professionals will often work with facility therapy dogs to help encourage the physical movement and verbal/nonverbal communication in people of all ages and abilities. These dogs can help motivate people to work on physical therapy exercises and social interactions, in addition to providing comfort, compassion, and a self of safety.

Facility therapy dogs tend to work in one building/facility with one professional and a variety of patients.

Becoming A Therapy Animal And Handler

Unfortunately, not every animal will be cut out to be a therapy animal (and that’s okay!). Therapy dogs will need to have a great attention span and temperament. If your dog is startled or scared in new environments or wary around strangers, being a therapy animal might not be the best idea.

But if you’re thinking of becoming a therapy dog/handler duo with your dog and they would be a great fit, doing therapeutic visitations at places like retirement homes, rehabilitation facilities, and hospitals might be a great way to spend your time as a therapy animal duo. There are some things to keep in mind and some things to do before you and your dog can work as a therapy animal duo.

Qualities of a Therapy Dog

Dogs of all breeds, sizes, and histories can be a therapy dog, as the most important trait is temperament. Therapy dogs need to be friendly, calm, non-aggressive, and able to get along with all kinds of people (including children) and environments. They’ll need to be patient, gentle, receptive to training, and able to focus on tasks with a great attention span.

Training and health

If you want to be a therapy animal/handler duo, you’ll need to do some basic training with your dog. The AKC Good Canine Citizen program is a great place to start with training, as many therapy dog certifications require your dog to be a Good Canine Citizen. They’ll also need to be healthy with a clean bill of health from your vet, up to date on vaccinations and heartworm medications, and on flea prevention.

Therapy dogs will need to be housetrained and able to focus in the midst of all sorts of distractions, like medical equipment and different environments. Some behaviors and tests that therapy dogs will need to know and go through are:

  • Accepting a friendly stranger. Working as a therapy dog means being around strangers so allowing strangers to approach is required.
  • Sit politely for petting. Being patient and polite for pets from folks of all kinds is a necessity for a therapy dog.
  • Appearance and grooming.
  • Walk with a loose leash in a variety of situations. While out and about, the dog should be able to walk with a loose leash. That also means walking through a crowd with no issues. Dogs will need to walk through crowds and around other people without getting distracted or aggressive.
  • Sit and down on command, stay in place. These behaviors are great for any dog but for therapy dogs, it also means being able to focus on the task at hand.
  • Coming when called. Vet Street explains why recall is important: “The most important reason to teach a recall is for emergency situations. Should your dog ever get loose on leash or run out of your house or yard, it’s critical that he will return to you when you call him. Dogs who do not come when called can easily get out of sight and become lost or find themselves in a dangerous situation.”
  • Reaction to another dog and distractions. Therapy dogs will need to be focused while “on duty” and must be behaved around other dogs. Two owners and dogs will greet each other and the dogs must be calm and behaved while the owners have a brief conversation.
  • Supervised separation. Another test includes being temporarily separated from their owner by staying with a different person. The dog will need to be calm during this time.
Testing and Certification

One of the final steps to becoming a therapy animal duo is finding an organization to be certified with. There are a few different organizations that work with therapy animals and handlers so find one that works for you and have your pup formally assessed. As mentioned, the important aspects include being healthy and properly trained. Some of these organizations include:

If you aren’t quite ready for the formal assessment and certification, doing more professional training can only help! The AKC Canine Good Citizen is one program but there are many others to try. The AKC also has a training program for puppies (called the STAR Puppy Program) if you have one and you’re just starting your training. There are also many obedience schools and one on one trainers around the Pacific Northwest (and other places). If you don’t know where to start, here are some articles on finding a great trainer to work with:

Therapy animals of all kinds and their owners/handlers can provide many benefits to all sorts of folks. Therapy dogs have helped destress people in airports and after mass shootings, like El Paso, Texas and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. They can help motivate patients in recovery and help with physical movement and fine motor movement. And of course, there are many kinds of therapy animals other than dogs. Cats, chickens, miniature horses, and more have all been a part of a therapy team and have helped many folks.

If you’re thinking about becoming a therapy animal/handler duo with your pet, there is a path for you! It may take some time, patience, and training but if your pet is a good fit for becoming a therapy animal, doing so can make a whole lot of people smile and feel better.

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