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Therapy dogs: What they are and what they do

This is the second in a three-part series to showcase and differentiate between emotional support animals, therapy dogs (or animals) and service dogs.

There is a lot of confusion about what each designation means, and where and how animals in each of these categories can legally and legitimately be used to assist their handlers or the recipients of their services.

This week’s column will focus on therapy dogs, what they are and how they can be of assistance to others.

First, let’s start by defining exactly what qualities make a dog a “therapy dog.”

Without question, the No. 1 qualification for a therapy dog is what I call a “bomb-proof” temperament. The dog must actively seek the attention of others, be outgoing and enjoy human interaction, be non-reactive to other dogs in environments that are often stressful, and be mannerly and obedient with a good relationship with their handler.

In many ways, a therapy dog is born, not made.

Where can therapy dogs go and what can they do?

Since the inception of therapy dog programs in the early 1980s, evidence has shown that therapy dogs can have a remarkable effect on people suffering from physical ailments, stress, depression, anxiety, PTSD and more.

In fact, therapy dog teams are often dispatched to the scenes of serious accidents or disasters to help survivors deal with the trauma of what they have experienced.

Therapy dogs are welcome in many public venues. Their visits to nursing homes brighten the lives of residents who are are unable to have dogs of their own.

In grade schools, they help younger children overcome shyness and anxiety, especially when reading aloud; in colleges and universities, their presence helps lower students’ stress levels at exam time.

In drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, they are non-judgmental visitors offering unconditional love and affection to residents who may be struggling to break the bonds of addiction.

Their presence at funeral parlors helps to lift the spirits of those who are grieving.

In the courtroom, therapy dogs can help victims and survivors of horrific crimes summon the courage to present their testimony.

And finally, in airports, where long lines and delays may make even the most patient traveller a little bit cranky, a wagging tail and a smiling face can make airport delays more tolerable.

So in short, certified therapy dogs can go almost anywhere!

But it’s important to remember that, even if certified, therapy dogs do not have the same special access privileges granted to emotional support animals or service dogs.

Does your dog have what it takes to be a therapy dog?

Here’s how to get started: Any breed of dog, any size dog and any age dog that has a confident, friendly personality can become a therapy dog.

They simply need to meet these criteria: be at least 1 year old, have a clean medical check-up by their vet within the past 12 months, be up-do-date on their core vaccinations and rabies vaccination, have a negative fecal test and have passed the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen test.

The AKC offers a therapy dog title, but does not certify therapy dogs.

Instead, training and certification must be done by recognized therapy dog organizations, and you and your dog must have completed the required number of visits to either medical or non-medical facilities.

Contact one of the many recognized therapy dog organizations to begin your training and evaluation (see websites listed below).

Each organization has specific requirements. Once your dog has completed their therapy dog evaluation, you will be ready to begin serving as a therapy dog volunteer.

Initially, you and your dog will be monitored by a representative of your designated organization; following a successful mentoring period and the completion of the required paperwork, you will become a certified therapy team.

Want more information?

Contact one of these recognized national Therapy Dog organizations:

Alliance of Therapy Dogs: www.therapydogs.com

Pet Partners: https://petpartners.org

Therapy Dogs International: https://www.tdi-dog.org/default.aspx

To see an extensive list of AKC-recognized therapy dog organizations, visit www. AKC.org and search for Therapy Dog Program.

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