Friday, September 10, 2010

Becoming the owner of a Therapy Dog

Written by a CP Volunteer

When I found myself with a cairn terrier puppy in my arms almost 4 years ago, I had never owned a dog…in fact, I had never spent much time with anyone else’s dog. I didn’t know a thing about dogs and I knew even less about terriers. She gnawed my hands with sharp puppy teeth, while I impulsively decided I’d call her “Eva”. I consider it nothing short of a miracle that despite my ignorance, we found each other that day. I had little idea of how much I would love her, how quickly she and I would become a family or what we would accomplish together.

During our first few weeks together, I was buying toys as quickly as Eva was chewing them and so we were spending quite a lot of time in Petsmart, which is how I came to sign up for a Beginner Obedience class. Of course, Eva picked up on ‘look’, ‘sit’ and the other commands pretty quickly, but more importantly, our working together caused me to form a relationship with her. And after it started, I couldn’t get enough. By the time she was one, Eva had earned her Canine Good Citizen certificate and I had gotten a crash course is raising a terrier. I read, researched and educated myself on all things dog—from food choices to training methods. When I came across an news article about therapy pets, I was up for the challenge.

I found a group of people locally who did visits together with their dogs and were actively participating in community events--they took their dogs to the libraries for children's programs, visited nursing homes and assisted living facilities and even marched in the annual St. Paddy's Day Parade. Through the Welcome Waggers group, I was introduced to Therapy Dogs International, a volunteer organization dedicated to regulating, testing and registration of therapy dogs and their volunteer handlers for the purpose of visiting nursing homes, hospitals, other institutions and wherever else therapy dogs are needed.

The requirements were similar to the AKC's CGC test, with the addition of wheelchairs, walkers and kids. Eva and I took a 8 week class to prepare for the evaluation. We practiced the things she'd be asked to do during testing. Our biggest challenge was her reaction to other dogs. Being a ‘spoiled only’ dog in our household, she occasionally thought it was necessary to let out a few Hello-I-am-Eva-and-like-to-be-#1 barks towards new dogs, especially larger ones. When the time came for the evaluation, the test dog was another small terrier and she managed to pass that requirement--in fact she passed the whole test!

1. Accepting a friendly stranger. The dog sits by your side while the evaluator approaches and shakes your hand. The dog can't be aggressive, shy or anxious.
2. Sitting for petting. The evaluators asks if he/she can pet your dog and touches the dog on head and back.
3. Grooming. The evaluators uses a brush/comb and brushes the dog as well as touches her feet and ears.
4. Out for a walk (on loose leash). The handler walks making a right/left turns (dog should follow you), when you stop the dog should sit.
5. Walking through crowd. Dog demonstrates he/she is still walking at your side, this is where the walkers/wheelchairs are used, as well as the child may be there.
6. Sit, Down and Stay. The dog must sit, go down and then stay as you walk 20 feet away....
7. Come when called. ...and then come when you call her.
8. Reaction to another dog. The dogs don't actually meet face to face, but each person has a dog on their side and meets, asks their dog to sit, talks, and then walks on with the dog behaving throughout. No lugging at the other dog even if it's playful.
9. Reaction to distraction. A bowl or something is dropped on the floor, an umbrella put up. It's okay if the dog startles (normal response) but they can't freak out by barking or anything.
10. Supervised separation. You pass the dogs leash to the evaluator and go out of site/the room for 3 minutes The dog cannot bark or become anxious with your absence.

I was especially proud of her during the supervised separation. I left her on a sit and although she was free to move around with the evaluator while I was out of sight, she actually stayed sitting the entire 3 minutes. Just before her second birthday, we got the paperwork back and started joining our local group of TDI dogs on visits. Eva did better than I could have imagined—better than she acts at home sometimes. She is calm and just seems to know what to do when she meets elderly people and/or kids. She allows me to pick her up and put her on laps or on chairs beside people. She’s never had a problem with another therapy dog during a visit. She allows them to visit with others nearby and just enjoys soaking up the attention she receives.

Several times a month, I clip the I AM A THERAPY DOG tag on her collar and off we go. Doing visits has reinforced my relationship with her, as it has become something that we do together. Additionally, the dog manners required were something I figured out I wanted for Eva as my pet anyway. Her becoming certified with Therapy Dogs International has been nothing but an added bonus.

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