By Melanie Hess
Dogs work, too. And according to award-winning Therapy Dogs, Inc. tester/observer Barbara Wilson, one of the number one requirements when testing handler-dog partnerships is that the dogs enjoy their jobs.
No suit and tie are required, as is common with humans, but Wilson’s eldest therapy dog, Tina, a long-haired Chihuahua, loves wearing her nurses uniform to visit patients at the hospital.
However, Tina’s job entails far more than wearing cute outfits and stealing the gaze of nearby humans.
“The dogs’ visits to different places provide a therapeutic benefit because they make people feel better emotionally,” Wilson explains. “We serve in all kinds of different settings.”
The organization Wilson works with, Heart of Texas Therapy Dogs, serves primarily in hospitals, senior facilities, and children’s reading programs in schools and public libraries.
“Sometimes, the dogs help distract people from pain or discomfort,” Wilson says. “For instance, when we visit the hospital, people there may in pain or depressed if they got a bad diagnosis. When a therapy dog comes in and spends some time with them and takes their mind off those unpleasant feelings, it can be very helpful.”
These special dogs are trained to react well to loud noises, someone pulling at them, or other uncomfortable situations. During work, they bark only on command.
“We visit nursing homes or hospitals where people are resting, sleeping, or recovering from surgery and a barking dog could really scare someone and be disturbing,” Wilson says. “The dogs have to be very polite visitors.”
Joni Reed, director of volunteering at Methodist Richardson Medical Center, says pet therapy, often done by Wilson’s organization, is crucial to patient morale and healing.
“I have seen patients with zero incentive to get out of bed, to participate in physical therapy, or even to take an active role in their healthcare decisions. However, when they receive a visit from the therapy dogs, their entire world changes,” Reed says. “They smile, they converse with their clinical team, and always finish their visit with a new attitude. Sometimes it’s just a simple reminder of their own pets at home, or a laugh out loud moment when the dogs do tricks and show off, but either way, they leave feeling energized and hopeful…something that hospitals need now more than ever.”
The pet therapy team makes time for the employees too.
“Hospitals are hard places to work and sometimes we need a pick-me-up too,” Reed says. “We are lucky to have them as part of our volunteer team.”
Wilson notes that therapy dogs can be helpful for patients’ families as well.
“Sometimes in situations when a patient is dying, and there’s nothing more the hospital can do, if a therapy dog comes in and they can just hug or pet the dog and get that stress relief, it can be very helpful. It’s a way to comfort people that humans can’t provide on their own.”
In reading programs, therapy dogs provide a non-judgmental ear for children struggling with reading or speech problems.
“The dogs don’t laugh if the child makes a mistake when they’re reading aloud,” Wilson explains, describing one of her favorite activities with her dogs. “The chemistry between the children and the dogs is really exciting. The kids take such delight in reading to a dog.”
The visits with seniors hold personal significance for Wilson. They served as the catalyst for her initial involvement with therapy dogs more than a decade ago.
“Back in 2001, my parents and my in-laws had just reached the point in their lives where, for various reasons, they were no longer able to have a dog, and they’d had dogs for years,” Wilson says. “To suddenly not have a pet is a big loss for people who have always had pets in their lives. They miss having that companionship because their pets were truly part of the family.”
Pets are often “part of the family.” And that’s the kind of loss some people experience.
“When a therapy dog comes to visit people living in an eldercare facility, it brings back memories of the good times they had with their own pets,” she says.
These individuals get to enjoy spending time with a pet, but they don’t have to worry about walking or feeding them or providing for the animal in other ways, such as veterinary care.
“Our visits with the elderly are very meaningful,” Wilson says. “Over time, we do get to know people well and genuinely care about them. When they die, it’s not only a loss for their family and caregivers. We feel the loss too.”
According to Wilson, each type of visit is rewarding in its own way.
“I’m passionate about all aspects of how therapy dogs can help people,” she says.
Wilson’s chihuahuas make great lap dogs, but they aren’t the only kind of breed that can serve as therapy dogs.
“When people think of therapy dogs, they think of golden retrievers, Labradors…collies,” she says, “but actually any breed can do this as long as the dog has a good temperament and good training.”
Wolf or coyote hybrids, however, are prohibited.
Size also matters very little in assessing the ability of a dog.
“We have dogs in our therapy organization that range from 3 or 4 pounds, like Tina, all the way up to 160 pounds,” Wilson says. “They all bring something special and unique to their visits.”
In fact, with the exception of wolf or coyote hybrids, there are no breed restrictions.
Primarily, the dogs must be well mannered and have an even temperament.
Extensive Testing and Training
Therapy dogs and their humans, also known as handlers, undergo extensive testing in order to become a registered dog/handler team for this entirely volunteer role.
First, they have to pass the Therapy Dogs Incorporated test, which involves assessment for temperament and whether they are comfortable around medical equipment, being handled, etc.
“Once they pass the handling test, the team goes on supervised visits in facilities with one of our testers, and we see how they perform in the real world-visiting people,” Wilson explains.
The dogs need to be comfortable in situations that a regular family pet doesn’t run into every day.
“For instance, they might be in a school when the fire alarm goes off, and the dogs have to be able to remain calm in the face of that,” Wilson says. “Or at an Alzheimer’s facility, there are alarms if someone tries to go out an exit door, and these alarms can be ear piercing. The dogs have to be able to recover from those kinds of stresses and still remain calm and friendly. Not every dog can do that.”
Teams who successfully complete both testing and training can be registered with Therapy Dogs, Inc. The organization provides their liability insurance, too.
“That’s why these dogs differ from the typical family pet.” Wilson says. “You know these dogs have been tested and trained to be suitable visitors.”
While the qualities of a dog’s personality are crucial in pet therapy, the handler’s traits are important as well.
“It’s not just the dog who is working,” Wilson says. “It’s the dog and handler working as a team. When we test potential teams, we are looking at how well the dog and handler communicate with one another.”
Wilson explains the human part of the team must be a “people person.”
“They need to enjoy meeting new people and be at ease talking to strangers and be comfortable doing that,” she says. “We also need to see that the dog is looking to the handler for direction and trusts them to protect them in a situation that might be unpleasant or uncomfortable for the dog.”
While it takes a very special dog and handler to qualify to work in dog therapy, the need for qualified teams is great and continues to grow.
“Because we’re an all-volunteer organization, we don’t always have the people available to meet every request,” Wilson says. “The demand for visits is far greater than what we can supply at this point. There are so many new senior and Alzheimer’s facilities springing up everywhere. There’s a huge need for this service as our population ages”
Every year, the Therapy Dogs, Inc national organization gives an award––the Outstanding Member Service Award.
Wilson received this award for 2014, and was chosen from amongst 14,000 registered members.
“I was quite surprised I was chosen,” Wilson says. “I wasn’t expecting it. I didn’t even know I was nominated.”
But as a dedicated Therapy Dogs Inc. tester/observer and handler, Wilson spends the same amount of time volunteering that others spend on their full-time jobs.
However, she emphasizes that a huge commitment of time is not required.
“Most of our volunteers are actually people who work full time during the week and do their visits on weekends when they’re free, or people who are retired and now have the time to volunteer and work with their dogs.”
Wilson says individuals interested in making use of therapy dogs, volunteering, or donating can visit www.hotthdogs.org.
“If it’s done well, it’s rewarding not only for the people we visit, but for the human and canine volunteers,” Wilson says. “For me, it’s just been a most wonderful way to give back to the community.”