Article by Sarah Nott
Many people suffer confusion when discussing service dogs and therapy dogs. These terms are NOT interchangeable. The easiest way to differentiate between the two is to remember service dogs are trained to do a specific task (or service) for their owners and therapy dogs are trained to share comfort and support (therapy) for people who are NOT their owners. This is not to say they don't share comfort and support with their owners. Indeed the reason an owner may investigate therapy work with their dog is because the owner realizes their dog has an innate ability to give comfort to the owner, and also enjoys attention from anyone the dog meets. Therapy dogs can be found "working" in hospitals, schools, libraries, jails, residential care facilities, nursing homes, courtrooms, etc. There are several organizations which assist an owner to share their dog with other people. The group with which I am most familiar is Alliance of Therapy Dogs or ATD.
The mission of Alliance of Therapy Dogs is to provide registration, support, and insurance for its members who are involved in volunteer animal assisted activities. Their objective is "to form a network of caring individuals who are willing to share their special dogs in order to bring happiness and cheer to people, young and old alike." ATD recognizes there are many well-behaved dogs whose owners have taught them to be polite members of society.
What makes a good therapy dog? Of course the dog must enjoy meeting people and be polite in its approach. They must be under control of the owner and responsive to commands as they work as a team. Obedience training is a good thing, but not mandatory. However such training does make it easier to progress through the ATD testing process. Such testing is spread over several events or visits. Usually the testing begins with a group session with multiple evaluators and dogs. Dogs perform simple heeling, sits, downs, and are observed in the face of distractions which could occur in a therapy dog setting: wheel chairs, walkers, oxygen machines, people running or rushing by, items being dropped, etc. After passing this evaluation, the dog-handler team is observed on three separate occasions in a working situation.
Once a dog passes the evaluation and is registered with ATD, the owner may choose the location for their therapy dog "job". It is up to the owner to contact the facility and make necessary arrangements for visiting. Some facilities may have additional requirements such as: background checks, volunteer training, or veterinary paperwork. Occasionally ATD sends information bulletins from facilities wishing to have therapy dog teams to members in that area.
Most facilities prefer to have registered therapy dogs. I have had several dogs registered through ATD since 2002. Each year I must complete the required paperwork to renew my membership and must obtain the veterinary checks necessary for my dogs. I follow the rules of the membership handbook, wear my personalized ID tag, and make sure my dogs wear their ATD heart-shaped tags on every visit. I appreciate the insurance of an umbrella organization, and the fact that ATD has made it easy to obtain information or paperwork on its website: www.therapydogs.com
Originally, I began therapy dog work as "something to do with my 9 year old retired show dog", now it has become a ministry I consider necessary to MY life. Because I cannot imagine a life without dogs, I take mine to visit a residential care facility near my home so those residents who love dogs can pet or hug a dog and enjoy watching them do tricks. I have also participated in the Reader dog program at a local library and an elementary school, where the dog basically does a long down stay on a blanket he shares with children who may have trouble reading to adults, but who can read to a dog. In regards to those who might wonder if my dogs enjoy these outings, I like to say, "It is a tough job but some poor dog has to do it." To even a casual observer, it is obvious that my dogs love visiting their respective facilities and enjoy seeing all of their special friends.
If you would like any more information on therapy dogs please visit the ATD website therapydogs.com or contact me, Sarah Nott through the ICCKC phone line: 208-388-1514