I certainly did, given my dog’s sociability, people-centric behavior, and working dog breed. But as I learned more about the stringent requirements and the zero tolerance for unpredictable behavior, I reconsidered. Even I had to admit that it probably wasn’t a plus for Monkey, as he is so aptly named, to startle when a person in a wheelchair or a skateboarder raced by. Perhaps this was one Portuguese Water dog who needed to find a different line of work.
But before I sold him short and to understand this more fully, I spoke with Gail Buchwald, Senior Vice President of the ASPCA Adoptions Center.
Here’s what I learned:
Q: Which types of animals can do pet therapy?
A: dogs (the majority), cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, horses
Q: What makes a pet a good candidate for therapy work?
A: Reliability, predictability, and controllability. They should be very social and enjoy interacting with people. They have to show no aggression to people or to other animals and have no bite history.
Q: What could disqualify a pet from doing therapy work?
A: Dogs that are fed a raw protein diet are not able to participate. This has to do with the risk of organisms that are carried in raw meat to an immune-compromised patient.
Q: What types of basic obedience are required?
A: Taking the example of a therapy dog, he should know the commands of “sit”, “down”, “stay” and “heel.” “Leave it” is a very important command because a pet may be walking into a hospital where there’s a food tray. He should have good recall, meaning that he comes when called. This level of basic obedience can be considered a prerequisite to signing up for a therapy training course.
Q: How much training is necessary?
A: There are a range of organizations. The ASPCA partners with the Delta Society and holds classes that can range from 6-8 weeks. Dogs learn about wheelchairs, crutches, walkers and such, so that they can walk into a facility with the hustle and bustle of people in lab coats and sometimes noisy equipment, and be completely nonplussed.
Q: What do therapy pets actually do?
A: Touch therapy, interacting in a social manner with the patient. There’s a wide range of how this can happen. You could tell your dog “go say hi” and he could trot over and wag his tail, which is quite a thrill to someone lying in bed. A cat might crawl up to someone and purr and allow the patient to pet him or her and have the experience of touch and trust. A pet can have a calming effect just lying next to a patient on the bed or on a chair near the bed. The social interaction provides companionship that will trigger a wide range of emotions—a feeling of calm, safety, being uplifted—all those forms of reassurance.
Q: What about assisting specific segments of the human population, say children or the elderly?
A: Therapy pets aren’t to be confused with animal assisted therapy, which is goal oriented. For example, at Equine-Assisted Therapy in Missouri, children with physical disabilities can have horse-back experiences that are not only fun but that may strengthen and support the natural motion of the spine and pelvis.
Q: Apparently Yale Law School students can “check out” a dog from the library for stress relief?
A: Checking a dog out of a library or leasing a pet for the day may not be all that safe or pleasing for the animal. Our recommendation would be to have that animal hang out in the library or take a walk with the animal’s handler. We don’t think of it so much as a therapy pet but more as a theapeutic team based on an animal and the person handling the animal. Whether it’s a cat or dog, pets will respond differently to us versus to someone else. (Editor’s Note: Perhaps this “therapy dog” remains in his section of the library at all times—this bears more investigation/canine sniffing!)
As for Monkey the Portuguese Water dog, he has completely come to terms with people in wheelchairs and skateboarders, thanks to repeated instances of encountering both on city sidewalks and seeing that I was not at all alarmed. (He’s even run into life-sized witches in store fronts on Halloween!) This said, until he’s a bit older and more mellow about sidewalk encounters with strangers, I’m planning to sign him up for agility training instead.
How about you? Have you considered doing therapy work with your pet? Do you think it would be a good fit?