Once you have decided this is an activity you might like to do the next step is to honestly evaluate whether your pet has both the right basic personality and the right manners.
In deciding whether to take your dog on visits honestly evaluate your dog's personality and social skills. How does your dog react to strangers on the street and in your home. Does your dog tend to jump up in friendly excitement? Does your dog pull back when someone extends their hand? Does your dog avoid being petted by strangers, or seek it out?
A good prospect for therapy work will enjoy meeting strangers, will actively approach, but in a calm manner. A dog that is so happy it jumps up, or pushes with feet, body or nose, will need some work before visiting can begin. A dog that is fearful or aggressive probably should not be considered for therapy work.
This evaluation is partly one of good manners, but also one of personality. That a dog can behave appropriately on a visit doesn't mean the dog will enjoy the visits. Let me give an example. My dog Tsuki has good manners. He does not jump on people uninvited. But notice the qualifying word "uninvited." He does in fact jump on people quite often, because quite often he is invited. And those are the people he really enjoys being around. Think of it as like a person with a loud hearty laugh. They may be able to have a pleasant time while restraining themselves, but to really enjoy themselves, to relax, they want to be where they can laugh. I want the dog I'm taking to think the visit itself is a real pleasure.
How does your dog react to unusual events. What happens when an alarm clock rings? or the smoke alarm? or some books fall of the shelf? Your dog should show interest in these unusual events, but calm readily. If the dog barks at a knock on the door, it should be quiet and under control when you open the door.
Will your dog walk on a leash without pulling? Will it sit or lie down when you tell it to do so? Can you hand the leash over to someone else and then leave without the dog pulling, or making a lot of noise? What happens when you walk past another person walking their dog? Most evaluations are based on tests similar to the AKC's Canine Good Citizen® (CGC) Program. If your pet's manners aren't quite what they need to be, that test is a good way to set some goals. Start with a controlled environment, like a class, then graduate to working in various public places. An irreplaceable value in a class is that the instructor can bring attention to things you don't know you are doing. Unconscious behavior by the person is the biggest reason for problems in teaching good manners.
Your dog must be reliable around dogs and other animals as well as people. In some situations is not unusual to encounter a pet belonging to another visitor. Your dog must accept the presence of cat, guinea pigs, rabbits, birds and other animals as well as other dogs. You cannot count on the good manners of these other visiting animals. In other words, you cannot use the excuse of "well the dog came right up in his face." When you aren't visiting, I don't have a problem with blaming the other dog. But in a health care facility your dog must be able to tolerate rude behavior from others. On the other hand, your dog cannot be the rude one.
The people your dog visits must be absolutely safe from your dog. The dog must be forgiving of both accidental and intentional pain that may be inflicted. It is your job to prevent injury to your dog, but the dog must not retaliate for your failure. Dog bites are not the only concern. Many of the people your dog visits are very fragile. Frail skin tears easily. A friendly paw on an arm can cause ugly red welts and your dog will be blamed. A "pet me" shove with nose or body can easily topple someone who is unsteady on their feet.
By now you should have a general idea of what is required of a good therapy dog. Please remember that even if your dog is not ready now that does not mean your dog will never be ready. If your dog is basically under control, and generally friendly, there is much you can do to help your dog get ready. In some cases it means simply waiting for your dog to mature. In other cases it might mean finding the appropriate program. For example, a dog that is not suited to a convalescent home might be suited to another situation.
A pleasant visit depends a lot on matching the pet to the kind of visitation and population involved. For example, some pets are very comfortable with a sedate older population but would be uncomfortable with the boisterous activity of a juvenile facility. A different pet may be well suited to that juvenile facility but become frustrated with the lack of energetic interaction that occurs in convalescent homes. Some pets do well in psychiatric facilities because they are not bothered by unusual behavior or loud voices and large rapid movements. Other pets would be distressed at that kind of human behavior.
Pets also differ in the kind of visitations they prefer. Some visits involve going to something like a day room where the residents are seated in a big circle in chairs. The pet spends a little bit of time with a large number of people, sometimes performing tricks or other entertainment. Snuggling isn't really practical in that environment. Other visits involve going to the residents rooms. Depending upon the terms of the visits one pet may spend only a few minutes with an individual but that individual will visit with several pets all attending the facility at the same time. In other instances the volunteer may sit down and spend half an hour with a single individual while other volunteers spend similar times with other individuals. Each person and each pet is paired. Some pets like the stimulation of visiting many different people, others prefer to snuggle and spend time with one.
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Copyright © 1996-2003, Diane Blackman Created: August 23, 1996 Updated November 12, 2007