My late husband suffered and died from Huntington’s disease, a rare genetic neurological disorder. He was in two different nursing homes for seven years. The last home had a therapy dog who lived there. This dog decided to sleep in David’s room but some nights he’d go missing. He sensed when residents were going to die and he’d move into their room and give comfort to both the dying and the family members. He stuck around as long as needed, sometimes days, and then go back to visiting residents and loving people.
On December 5, 2004, David breathed his last breath after struggling for a few days. I remember many details about the day my husband died. What I remember most was the dog. I don’t know that I ever touched him or even knew his name. But when he made an appearance that day and stayed close to David I knew his suffering was almost over. For me, that old brownish/black dog, wise beyond his years, represented an angel. He let children crawl on him, allowed tears to fall onto his head, and he just was. I’m not sure he ever was one of these adorably pretty dogs. But he was sensitive and caring and had love to give in the way people in crisis need. He was the perfect nursing home therapy dog.
Essentially, the job of a therapy dog entails providing emotional support, relieving stress, and brightening lives of humans in need. Isn’t that the best definition?
A therapy dog is one that is trained to offer comfort and affection to individuals in nursing homes, hospitals, schools, hospices and during a crisis. Therapy dogs have proven highly effective for children who have autism and various learning disabilities.
In theory, any dog could be a therapy dog but in fact, it takes a special pup to take on this critical role. The most essential in a therapy dog is the dog’s owner. Humans must have a personality that makes them a good match for a therapy dog handler. Patience is of critical importance to being a successful handler but so does the ability to and willingness to take your dog out and mingle with people and to be responsible for their actions. Whether it’s a read to the dog program for kids struggling to read or bringing joy and love to residents of a nursing home or hospital therapy dogs have important jobs and it all starts with the owner.
The other day we received an email from a teacher who is thinking of getting a dog that she can train as a therapy dog for her classroom. What a great idea! She wants to rescue a dog, always a wonderful idea in our book, and then train it rather than trying to find an already trained therapy job. She asked if we had any specific dogs who would be likely candidates for her to train and bring to her classroom. Great question but not a short answer.
There are specific qualities that all therapy dogs share that make them suitable for specific jobs beyond simply being awesome.
1. These dogs must get along with strange dogs and people in social situations.
2. When I looked at training Coconut to be a therapy dog this phrase kept coming on; all paws on the floor at all time. In other words, my little lover who enjoys greeting people needs to learn to not jump. These dogs must be well trained and obedient to their owners at all times.
3. One reason I thought Coconut might be a good therapy dog is that after the initial paws off the ground he is a very calm dog. Calmness ranks high on the list of demeanors of critical importance.
4. Coconut has the next one down pat. He is the friendliest dog ever and people love, love, love him. He is not in the least bit aggressive and gets along with every child or adult.
5. Therapy dogs must be well mannered, no they can’t eat off someone’s plate or beg for food and act like a crazy creature romping around the room.
6. The last few we’ll lump together because they need no explanation. Dogs who are well suited to schools, nursing homes, hospitals, and other locations must be reliable, even-tempered, gentle, confident and, above all, they must love meeting new people.
I’m by no means an expert in dogs and certainly not in what breed makes a good therapy dog. A smaller, less active dog might do better with seniors while a larger dog could be fine in schools. Consider the setting and the job your dog will be doing before starting to choose the right dog.
I’ve seen Yorkies, Corgis, Bulldogs, and other smaller dogs in the role of therapy dogs. I’ve also Witnessed Golden Retrievers, German Shepherd, and Labrador Retrievers in these roles.
Our adoption coordinators have a lot of experience and they know our dogs. When I wanted an emotional support dog I found the perfect pick thanks entirely to NEW PAWSibilities. I had no idea what I was even looking for!
Another resource to help you choose the right dog is to engage the services of the trainer many of our adopters have been using. Amy is willing to meet you at the shelter and evaluate some of the dogs you have chosen after speaking to the staff. She can help you to understand trainability, gauge the dog’s character, quirks, etc. Yes, there is a cost attached but it will likely a small investment for a huge payback.
Amy’s Facebook page has all of her contact information and other details are here.