Owners of pet dogs truly love their dogs because dogs come to be petted, handled and spoken to. Dogs accept people regardless of personal faults or disposition. The human-dog bond or contact provides emotional support proven to decrease human anxiety, depression and blood pressure as well as foster pleasure. The benefit of the human-dog bond can be put to therapeutic use for humans.
The author, Sue Halpern, in her book, "A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home" (2013) describes a dog's love as immediate, fulfilling and enthusiastic while human expression of love to others can be hesitant. She describes training her 40-pound "mutt" named Pransky, to become a certified therapy dog and how during weekly visits to a local nursing home with Pransky she learned how residents demonstrated charity toward each other and unexpected enthusiasm for life even when infirm. She found that even a nursing home can be an "incubator of virtue" where volunteers like she and her dog share a dog's love with people. She experienced feelings of worthiness equal to the comfort her therapy dog gave the residents.
Household dogs with their owner-handler become a team to provide emotional and physical therapeutic encounters in nursing homes, homeless centers, hospice centers, schools, homes for youth and other situations. Therapy dogs are friends and companions to everyone. Therapy dogs expect to be petted, unlike service dogs such as guide dogs for the blind, which avoid being petted but have access to public transportation and restaurants.
Prozac is a male Golden Retriever who works with his handler as a certified therapy dog team in a mental health social work clinic. He is therapeutic by providing a calming presence.
Photo by Patty Gabreski
A household dog can become a therapy dog by training at home, by having an inherent acceptable temperament and by conditioning during the first year of life. The dog and handler-owner then must pass a behavior test given by a certifying organization.
Locally, this can be achieved through Therapy Dogs United (TDU) founded by Pat Van Zandt in Erie, Pa., in 2008. The process requires passing two similar tests: first the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen and then the TDU/Erie test. Requirements include, accept a friendly stranger, sit politely for petting, allow grooming by the evaluator, walk on a slack leash, walk through a crowd, come when called, stay focused around other dogs, walk by accessible food, stay calm around noisy children, stay calm around wheelchairs/walkers and stay put for three minutes when the handler is out of sight.
Characteristics of handlers include being friendly to other people and their dogs, enjoy interaction with people of all ages even some with illness, have time and energy to volunteer service, and maintain dog training, health and grooming. Lastly, one should be comfortable in a nursing home or hospital setting. Other organizations such as Therapy Dogs International can administer the certifying test for the dog-handler team. Therapy Dogs United-Erie (www.therapydogsunited.org) has programs to train dogs to serve as personal companions, accompany dyslexic children learning to read and serve as skilled support dogs by physical and occupational therapists treating patients after stroke, trauma or debilitating illness.
Patty Gabreski, a licensed clinical mental health social worker and handler takes her certified dog, Prozac, to work every day. Prozac greets clients/patients who can pet him if they wish. He is therapeutic by providing a calming presence in the room. He wears a required vest identifying him.
The author, Sue Halpern, felt her dog Pransky's effort was work because when he returned home after his two-hour weekly shift at the local nursing home he promptly took an afternoon nap. The visit was work because Pransky had to behave instead of pursuing his natural instincts to eat dropped food and to run down hallways exploring sights and smells.
During a personal telephone communication with Pat Van Zandt, founder of TDU, she assured me that after a handler-dog team is certified, an orientation program is offered to acquaint the handler with locations desiring therapeutic visits and trains the team how to perform during specific therapy visits. Becoming a therapy dog team allows a dog to share its love with other humans and allows the owner to serve others which may be considered an act of compassion and sacrifice.