Sit, Stay, Serve: The Road From Rescue Dog to Therapy Dog


Wondering if your rescue dog has a calling as a therapy or Reading  Assistance Dog ?

For many human handlers and their rescued pooches, the benefits of volunteering together in animal assisted activity is a life changing experience. Therapy dogs and their human partners bring comfort and cheer to those who may need it.  Walk down the halls of a health care facility today and a friendly therapy dog might just greet you.

My rescued golden ,Junior, and I  worked for several years as a therapy dog team and R.E.AD. Dog team until we both retired . We are often asked if rescued dogs can become therapy dogs.

Here are four key things we are asked and what we learned on our own journey:

1) What does a therapy dog do?

Therapy dogs visit in settings such as hospitals, nursing homes, schools, libraries and other community settings to provide the special comfort and benefits of the canine –human connection.

Roles of therapy dogs range from providing a friendly visit to a lonely senior in a nursing home , to comforting a hospital patient, to helping youngsters learn to read .

A number of benefits may be provided by interacting with a therapy animal. A friendly canine may help distract a person from their problems as they think and talk about animals. Animals may also open a channel of non threatening communication; provide non-judgmental acceptance and unconditional, uncomplicated acceptance. Therapy dogs, at times may provide a much needed laugh. As most who share their lives with dogs can attest, dogs’ antics frequently entertain us.

Therapy dogs are not service dogs. Service dogs are those who are specially trained to support a person with disabilities. Therapy dogs do not have the same access privileges in public places as service dogs.

2) The road to being a Therapy  Dog Team

Becoming a therapy dog requires team work between human and canine. Not every dog can be a therapy dog. Many rescue dogs enjoy therapy work. Some do not.

A first step for the human end of the leash is to determine if your rescue dog would be a good candidate to enjoy therapy work and has the appropriate temperament . Many formerly homeless rescued dogs do.

To qualify to become a therapy dog team, both human and canine volunteers must complete training. So it is important to evaluate if both of you are a good fit for the role of a therapy dog team.

A handler-animal team registers as a team with a therapy dog organization when they have completed the training and testing requirements. The handler-animal team must pass a skills and aptitude test, and the animal must complete a health screening. Pet Partners, one national organization, requires teams pass an evaluation every two years. Other therapy dog organization requirements may differ, but all require some form of evaluation of both animal and handler .

Any breed dog is eligible to become a therapy dog. Temperament is a key qualifying factor. Therapy animals must be reliable, predictable and controllable by the handler in a variety of therapy situations. A dog that is outgoing, friendly and confident in new surroundings is a potential therapy candidate.

Therapy dogs should show no shyness or aggression or demonstrate a threatening body posture. Animals that growl or bite or show aggression would not be appropriate for therapy visiting. Rescued dogs and senior dogs often possess great potential.

The amount of time it takes to prepare a dog to enter therapy work varies with the background of the team. My golden retriever, Junior, a rescue at one year old,was not mature enough to be evaluated until he was three years old. He was distracted by almost anything that seemed fun. Other rescue dogs may be ready sooner. Some dogs may not be suitable for therapy interactions even later.

The dog and the handler both need to be ready. Because animal therapy work is a team effort between handler and dog, the handler also should possess certain characteristics. Handlers must be able to dedicate the necessary time to volunteer and train their animal. Handlers need to be responsible for their animal and an advocate for him or her. Key handler requirements are an ability and willingness to respect client differences and agency requirements, show empathy and maintain confidentiality.

Both handler and animal should enjoy the company of others. Handlers should be able to be friendly, provide gentle interaction, guidance, and be confident and relaxed during visits.

3) Whats our best fit?

For a new therapy dog team, one of the first steps after successfully completing testing and qualification can be finding just the right therapy niche. Some dogs and handlers enjoy interacting with seniors in clinical or acute care settings while other enjoy hospital visiting or the role of reading with children. Matching the dog and handler team characteristics to the facility and role that best matches their experience, talents, interest and energy level is a key part of a successful experience effort for both team and recipients. My  partner and I fit best in reading or one to one counseling environments.

4) How do we get started?

Volunteers interested in becoming involved in therapy work have a number of excellent organizations where they can learn more about becoming a therapy team.

Many organizations’ websites provide information about testing and registration for therapy dogs. Requirements vary for each organization.To learn about the requirements to be a Pet Partners team ,visit the Pet Partners website

Becoming a therapy dog team with my rescued dog is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.

I believe rescue dogs bring something special to therapy work.

Rescue dogs who give back as therapy dogs are a living message of hope, resilience  second chances, and the  healing power of love. It’s a human-animal connection and partnership that benefits both ends of the leash and others.

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