About a year ago, I started to contemplate something new to do with my 10-year-old lab mix, Juno. She, my husband, and I enjoy our walks as a pack, as well as traveling when we are not all together in our office at “work.” While I continue building my business, I wanted to have something fun and engaging to do on the side, and if I could take my dog with me, all the better!
My brother was the first to suggest I look into therapy dog training for Juno, as the hospital he works at utilizes therapy dogs for patients and families on a regular basis, and he felt that our cool-as-a-cucumber lab mix would make a great addition to the volunteer staff there.
Therapy dogs are not service animals, so they can’t go everywhere their handler does as is the case with a seeing-eye dog or a comfort animal. Therapy dogs do, however, serve an important function by being neutral parties who are simply there to support the emotional needs of others in times of stress. Therapy dogs serve in a number of facilities including but not limited to visits in hospitals, funeral homes, nursing facilities, libraries, schools, colleges and universities, libraries and even airports.
|Good Dogs! Juno's classmates patiently wait|
I found a training program run through Therapy Dogs International (TDI), and enrolled Juno and I for the 6 week course this past fall. The training was rather similar to our work on the AKC Canine Good Citizen certificate we earned a few months earlier, but it was a bit more intense.
Over those six weeks, Juno and I learned as a team how to remain calm if things (canes or other items) were dropped next to us; how to navigate around wheelchairs as well as walkers; and how to remain in a “down stay” for a longer period and allow strangers who may not be used to dogs approach and touch her.
I’m proud to say that Juno made the training look easy. I have to admit that her age might have been a bit of an advantage, as the other dogs in her class were really puppies no more than three years old to her 10. Still, all of the dogs in her class did remarkably well with the challenges set before them.
The hardest part for most dogs is the testing phase, during which handlers are not allowed to offer treats to their dog for a job well done. Although Juno is very motivated by food, she is also thankfully very happy for praise or a belly rub, too, so that helped us out in the long run.
I’m happy to say that Juno passed with flying colors and we are now in the process of getting paperwork completed so we can begin our volunteer time at the hospital. This part takes longer than the training, because of the medical sign-offs and tests that I need to go through (it is a hospital, after all, so I need to be up on my vaccines! Juno’s all ready to go; she’s just waiting for me!
We will certainly report in again once we begin our visits in earnest. In the meantime, if you and your pup are interested in becoming a certified therapy dog team, you can contact Therapy Dogs International via their website at www.tdi-dog.org.
MJ Courchesne is a freelance publishing consultant, writer, and part-time personal trainer with a passion for gardening, walking, wine, and travel. She lives in a restored 1890s Victorian home situated in the heart of Buffalo, NY with her husband and lab mix, Juno. Her new blog can be found at http://nickelcityboomerang.blogspot.com/.