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Unraveling the mystery of Therapy Dogs

By Janie Lackman | Pet therapy, also known as Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT), uses the link between animals and humans to enhance the physical, emotional and social well being of people of all ages. Research has shown that participation in AAT provides a calming effect that triggers a reduction in stress, anxiety and blood pressure. Visits also help with feelings of depression and isolation as well as providing stimulating mental activity through the interaction.

Pet therapy benefits people of all ages and from all socio-economic areas. Everyone from the elderly in our nursing homes to the young children in our schools. It provides a non-judgmental, unconditional love, from animals that does not discriminate based on appearance. It also provides a rare opportunity to not only receive but also give affection. Visits are conducted by volunteers and their dogs in dog/handler teams. These dogs have undergone special training to become registered as therapy dogs and in most cases the volunteer/handler works with their own dog.

Pet Therapy Teams visit schools, hospitals, assisted living facilities, and anywhere where interaction with dogs may be beneficial. Locally, Beaufort Memorial Hospital has an active Pet Therapy program. Most of the local Assisted Living Facilities including Helena House, Morningside and Summit Place also have regular pet therapy visits. Several of the Beaufort Hospice organizations feature pet therapy as a volunteer service as well.

The handler encourages participants to interact with the dog by petting it. Some may wish to brush the dog or simply look at it. With permission, small dogs may be held in their lap or placed on the bed next to them. Tricks or obedience routines may be used. Some visits may include walking alongside the individual with the dog and the handler or throwing toys for fetch.

There are differences between therapy dogs and service dogs, as well as companion animals. All are specially trained dogs but there are distinct differences. A service dog is trained to meet the disability related needs of their handler as legally defined under the American with Disabilities Act, 1990. These teams have federally protected rights for access to public areas. Service dogs are generally not considered “pets”.

Therapy dogs provide therapeutic contact with people but are not limited to those with disabilities and are not legally defined by federal law. They are usually the personal pets of their handlers and work with them to provide service to others in their community. Therapy dogs are typically not service dogs. People are encouraged to interact with a therapy dogs whereas interaction with a service dog is not advised.

A companion animal is simply another term for a personal pet. These may or may not have obedience training as well as other training.

There are three main organizations that provide support and register therapy dog teams, and getting involved in pet therapy is easy.

Pet Partners, formerly known as Delta Society, was established in Portland Oregon in 1977 as a research organization to explore the link between animals and humans. They work with the registration of Service and Animal Therapy Teams. For more detailed information on this organization visit www.deltasociety.org

Therapy Dogs International was founded in 1976 in New Jersey. In 1991, they adopted the AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test as part of their testing requirements for potential therapy dog teams. In 2011, TDI had 24,000 teams registered across the country. Beaufort has a TDI Chapter. For additional information on this local chapter contact director Dick Hoagland at 522-2073 or by email at merle13@embarqmail.com or for general information visit www.tdi-dog.org.

Therapy Dogs, Inc. was founded in 1990 in Wyoming. There are currently 12,000 registered teams across the country. This organization uses a more on the job testing approach. Dogs and Handlers meet with the tester/observer and then make 3 visits together at different locations so that the tester may observe the interaction between the dog, handler and participants in true therapy environments. For details visit www.therapydogs.com.

Registering your dog with one of the national therapy dog organizations provides you with several benefits including the acknowledgement of passing a testing standard to provide therapy, support for issues or problems, liability insurance for your volunteer visits among others.

The best therapy dogs are born not made. Although every dog may be trained in basic obedience skills not all dogs have the temperament to be therapy animals. The best therapy dogs enjoy their work. The have a love for contact with all humans both young and old. An even temperament is essential for a therapy dog and aggression is simply not tolerated. Any breed can make a fantastic therapy dog with the “right” attitude and training.

Each of the organizations has slightly different testing requirements but as a minimum to test a dog it MUST be at least 1 year in age, agreeable to allow strangers to touch them, be good around other dogs, listen to their handler while knowing basic commands, walk on a leash without pulling, be calm for petting and be current on all vaccines.

Pet Therapy or AAT provides a wonderful resource for sharing our love of animals with true benefits to participants. My 13 year old basset hound Elvis and I have been a registered pet therapy team through Therapy Dogs Inc for over 12 years. Elvis doesn’t do fancy tricks but she is an excellent snuggler and has never met a stranger.

Pet therapy to us is simply the business of bringing smiles.

No matter how tired I am when we go visiting, there is always at least one visit that makes the entire thing worthwhile and keeps us coming back. Maybe it is the child that wouldn’t stop crying until he saw Elvis or the alzheimer’s patient that only responds to dogs or even the smile from a staff member that has had a bad day but can’t help it when they see silly Elvis walk by. I hesitate to guess the number of smiles that Elvis has brought to others but I can easily say that each and every one was special.

It is a simple thing to share your pet with others but it makes a world of difference, and trust me, you get so much more out of it than you ever put into it.
This is my Elvis in the photo below.