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Ask the Expert: What Makes a Pet a Good Therapy Animal

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QAbout a year ago I rescued Lucy, a now two-year-old Pit Bull mix with the sweetest disposition of any dog I’ve ever had. She is wonderful with people of all ages and eager to comfort and show love. I think she has potential as a therapy dog, and I would love to learn more about the process. Are there specific requirements for becoming a therapy dog? What personality traits are best for this type of work? If I do decide to move forward, how do I go about getting Lucy certified?

Congratulations on welcoming lucy into your family. Therapy animals come in all shapes and sizes, though some characteristics are universal to successful therapy animal teams. The first is basic obedience skills. All therapy dogs

should be able to sit, lie down, stay, and come when called. Once you feel like you have basic skills mastered, try practicing these in new environments. Remember, as a therapy animal team you may be visiting in a variety of settings such as hospitals, libraries, and senior centers. Many dogs perform obedience commands perfectly at home but when surrounded by distractions such as new smells, people walking past, or unusual sounds they seem to forget everything they have learned. This is an area where practice can really help.

Therapy dogs welcome—not merely tolerate—interactions with strangers. Certainly your dog loves your family, but are you sure she loves being petted, sometimes awkwardly, by people she doesn’t know? It’s important to recognize that when it comes to therapy animal visits, you and your dog are a team. Your dog will use body language to tell you how she is feeling, and it’s your responsibility to be able to read these cues and respond accordingly by supporting lucy, sensing when she’s had enough.

Once you start paying close attention to your pet’s body language you’ll get a feel for the kinds of visits she might enjoy most. While you may have your heart set on visiting a hospital, be sure lucy is comfortable with the sounds of beeping machines, announcements over the intercom, and gurneys being wheeled down halls. Or maybe you think reading with kids at a library would be fun, but does she feel comfortable around small children who can be loud and move erratically? It is your responsibility to set lucy up for success. When your dog is happy and confident, together you can bring immeasurable joy and comfort to people you meet.

At a minimum you can expect that registering as a therapy animal team will include a visit to your vet for a clean bill of health, as well as an evaluation where you demonstrate your skills and aptitude as a therapy animal team. While there are many local, regional, and national programs that register therapy animals, not all have the same standards. Recommendations from the International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organizations as well as The Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America include required training for handlers, as well as regularly recurring evaluations for animals to ensure suitability as the animal ages. A program such as Pet Partners meets these requirements, and we would certainly welcome your application to become a registered team.

Callahan.maryMargaret.LOW.RESMary Margaret Callahan is the Senior National Director of Program Development at Pet Partners, where she oversees safe and effective animal- assisted interventions for therapy teams in all 50 states and works to ensure that highly trained and professional volunteers make a difference in their community. The daughter of a veterinarian, Callahan grew up surrounded by pets and has a deep appreciation for the strength of the human- animal bond. Callahan lives in Seattle with her loving husband where they are devoted parents to their young daughter and their companion dog, Mimi.

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