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  A Kiss Is Just a Kiss . . . Unless It's a Licking

contributed by Kim Norton

One of the many joys of being owned by a dog is being on the receiving end of big wet kisses. I believe that they can make almost anything better. (I like ear nibbles best.) That is the good news. The bad news is that there are instances when licks are inappropriate, especially in AFT and AAT. The issue may not be whether the person being visited by a therapy dog wants the kiss. Sometimes, canine kisses, like those in paperback romances, are forbidden.

There are many reasons why a doggy kiss may be medically unwise. Most of them involve the animal transmitting something from one patient to another, or, just as undesirably, to the therapy dog him/herself. Staph infections or skin fungi such as ringworm can be transmitted in this way, as well as poison ivy or other conditions involving fluid-filled vesicles. Or, a patient may have a contagious illness, either viral or bacterial, that the dog may vector - of critical concern in patients with challenged or damaged immune systems. The patients at greatest risk are those who have undergone transplant procedures.

Medical paraphernalia, such as catheters, hep-locks, bandages, etc. should not be touched by the dog in any way at all, for the dog's sake as well as the patient's. Additionally, some medical procedures and conditions, as well as age, can lead to extremely friable skin. In these cases, even the lightest of licks can cause either pain or damage. Some medications and medical conditions can alter a person's clotting time and sensitivity so radically that even the slightest touch can lead to bruising or spontaneous bleeding. If a patient has recently had even the most minor of surgeries, the healing skin should be avoided. The same holds true for scrapes, scratches and scabs. Many patients who would otherwise love to have a dog visit are fearful of physical contact of any kind, for good cause.

A person may be allergic to dogs. We often think of the hair or dander as being the agent provacateur, while it is, most often, protein from saliva which causes a reaction. I wipe my dogs down with an almost dry wash-cloth or small towel before beginning a therapy session. This reduces the dander which they might otherwise send into the air. Of course, good brushing and use of a shedding tool, along with brushing the teeth as well as clipping and grinding the nails, are done before leaving home. (My very sheddy Golden Retriever often provokes less response than my non-shedding Standard Poodles precisely because the hair has been on her body less time and has absorbed less dog saliva.) The allergic person may be able to pet the dog and not have a reaction as long as they wash their hands immediately after a therapy session. If, on the other hand, they get a doggy kiss, they are liable to turn red almost at once.

Then, there are the people who genuinely do NOT want a little lick for whatever reason. They may be afraid. They may believe it to be unhygienic and will consequently react very inappropriately to a doggy kiss. There are also dozens of other reasons why someone may hold to the conviction that lips which touch dog food will never touch them. Their wishes should be respected.

SOOOOOOOO, what does all this mean? Only that before your dog decides to give anyone a nice big smackeroo, the wise handler will do the following:

  1. Teach your dog to lick ONLY on command. I use (dog's name) kisses.

  2. Determine if the facility has a "licking law".

  3. Always check with staff members as to medical situations. If they or you are unsure, don't risk patient or dog by permitting puppy kisses.

  4. Ask family members and/or friends who may be there if they know of any reason not to allow your pet to bestow a friendly little kiss.

  5. ALWAYS ask the person you are visiting.

These are some good alternatives for a lick:

  1. Teach your dog to put his/her head on a person's lap for petting. The command that I use is "say hello".

  2. Have the person you are visiting use your watch me or ready command to focus the dog's attention on him/her.

  3. A pawshake or high five.

After all, while canine kisses can be therapeutic, a doggy grin, a wag, a cuddle and a loving look can work miracles too.


The above article is hosted by DogPlay and contributed by Kim Norton. I hope that it and other articles will be useful for people involved in Pet Assisted Therapy, Pet Assisted Activities and similar activities.

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Copyright © 1997, Kim Norton     Created: November 9, 1997     Updated November 12, 2007    

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