Behind the Scenes: Life of a Therapy Dog
What does a therapy dog do exactly!? Can my dog be a therapy dog – what is required of them? I wouldn’t even know where to begin!
So while I’ve done a little research myself on therapy dogs (as many of you know, I am in the process of becoming a therapy team with Rio), I’ve consulted with a couple experts: Laura Bruccoleri and her dog, Piper, as well as Kellie French and her dogs, Marri and Cedric!
*Laura and her dog Piper, who you may know as ‘Pipers Page of Life‘ on Facebook, are two friends of ours that have been doing therapy work for several years. Piper is an American Pit Bull Terrier and is an amazing breed ambassador!
*Kellie is the Volunteer Education Director at A Rotta Love Plus (animal rescue in Minnesota) and also works with PRIORITY Paws partner organizations. So what does PRIORITY Paws stand for? Pit bull & Rottweiler Interactive OutReach, Instruction, & Therapy for Youth. They are helping the breed, helping youth and reducing violence!
I asked Laura & Kellie many of the most common questions that arise with therapy dogs and here’s what I found out!
What are some of the most important things a therapy dog MUST be able to do all the time?
“I believe the most important quality could be the fact that Piper can and does remain calm in any given situation. She’s non-reactive to loud or disruptive distractions and actually seems to help spread calmness to those around her.” – Laura
Therapy dogs should have a very even temperament. Keep in mind that there is more a therapy dog than just having a friendly dog who loves people. The dog’s demeanor, temperament, and focus on you are very important when ‘on the job’.
Is there a lot of training to become a therapy dog?
“It really depends on the dog. Personally, I have two dogs with very different personalities.
My first registered therapy dog is high energy. She became so overly excited about everything and everyone, that we went through a lot of dog training classes (or what my trainers have always referred to as ‘human training’), various obedience classes and even a Rally and Agility class which really helped me learn how to appropriately manage a high energy dog in situations where she needs to tone it down. After she mastered keeping her butt down on the ground for a solid sit/stay and keeping all four feet on the ground when greeting people, we were ready for the therapy dog test.
In stark contrast, my slower (slightly dopey) male who I adopted at about one-and-a-half years old, only needed a basic obedience and Canine Good Citizen (CGC)/therapy dog class and easily passed the therapy dog test.
However, be aware of the available national therapy dog organizations that provide registration/testing in your area, as different organizations have requirements.” – Kellie
“I did a lot of research and used very reputable resources for referrals as to which organization to register with. Everyone has different preferences to meet their needs. It’s best to research each organization to see which one suits you best. I feel it’s best to talk to individuals who have experience with a few of the organizations you have selected.” – Laura
Do you have to have an open schedule to do therapy work?
“It really depends on the type of therapy work that you’re interested in doing, but generally, no. You can visit organizations when it works best for you. Adult assisted living facilities and hospitals are two most commonly visited types of places where therapy dogs are welcome. Both places are open 24/7, so daytime/evening/weekend visiting is available.
If you’re interested in doing therapy dog work with children, daytime opportunities are more common. However, various libraries have read programs where you can bring your therapy dog into the library and children can practice reading, while the therapy dog quietly listens.
And there are various other opportunities that may be available as well. Most national therapy dog organizations have lists of organizations who are requesting therapy dogs in your area, so that’s a great place to start.” – Kellie
How often do you visit places with your therapy dog? Is there a certain amount required?
“Currently, one of my dogs does therapy work for approximately two-four hours per month and my second dog and I volunteer that amount of time approximately every two months.
For us, there is no required amount of time; however, you’ll have to check with the national organization that you’re registered with to determine if they have requirements.” – Kellie
What is the best part of being a therapy dog team?
“For me, I love working with kids, especially youth who have experienced trauma, violence, and/or abuse and neglect.
Watching a therapy dog display kindness, affection, and attention to the kids then have these kids smile and sometimes even open up about their difficult experiences is truly amazing.
Within one group that I was part of, one of our therapy registered Rottweiler’s laid her head in a girls lap. The girl at first ignored the dog as she was pretty shut down. Soon she started petting the dog and by the end of the group she was starting to talk and participate in group.
Later I learned that she had just been sexually assaulted a few days prior and would not speak. The staff at the shelter reported that this is the first time they heard her speak, so they were excited to help her healing begin. It was truly an amazing moment which I will never forget.” – Kellie
“The best parts of being a therapy dog team are the smiles and excitement I receive. Visiting the children with Autism disabilities had proven the most positive outcome.” – Laura
Is your dog allowed to go in stores with you if he is a therapy dog?
“No. Therapy dogs have to be allowed into facilitates based on the policies of that organization.
Just because my dog is registered as a therapy dog does not mean that I can take my dog on public transportation or have a right to bring my dog into any facility.
Most organizations that allow therapy dogs often have a volunteer training for their facility that you have to go through. You will likely even have to fill out an application and background form to volunteer there with your therapy dog.
Unfortunately, some organizations who welcome therapy dogs continue to have a breed ban. In Minnesota, our Children’s Hospital does not allow therapy dog teams that are pit bull or Rottweiler teams. So certainly, be aware of discrimination and I will always encourage people to meet with people at those organizations to change this policy.” – Kellie
What’s your favorite therapy job?
“Piper’s favorite jobs, I believe, are working with the Autistic children at the Elementary School and the children with cancer at the Children’s Hospital.” – Laura
Being a Pit bull, have you ever been discriminated against at a facility?
“At first, when being interviewed by certain facilities, when giving the information that she was in fact an APBT, there was a sign of hesitation in their voice. But each and every personal interview and meeting prior to each visit has proven to be a success and the reaction is typically, “She’s an amazing dog and we can’t wait to have her our facility!”.
Changing minds to those who doubt her because of her breed has been one of Piper’s best accomplishments.” – Laura
“Unfortunately, some organizations who welcome therapy dogs continue to have a breed ban. In Minnesota, our Children’s Hospital does not allow therapy dog teams that are pit bull or Rottweiler teams. So certainly, be aware of discrimination and I will always encourage people to meet with people at those organizations to change this policy.” – Kellie
Where do therapy dogs go?
Schools – Children Reading to Dogs
DSRD (Disaster Stress Relief Dogs)
And wherever else therapy dogs are needed!
Has your dog ever done something silly/embarrassing while ‘on the job’?
“Ah yes, various moments like this. We had a group outside and Cedric plopped out a big smelly poop, which of course, the kids found hilarious!
Cedric also has had tremendous gas at times and also drools excessively if someone is making something yummy that he can smell (we always come prepared with a small towel to wipe him off).
Dogs of course are never embarrassed by these normal bodily functions, so it creates a great conversation to have with kids about how care-free dogs can be and then we turn this into a conversation about how to deal with moments like this in school, with peers, etc. It’s a great segway into talking about key life skills such as those!” – Kellie
“Piper always has silliness about her. She tends to “plop” down on the laps of the children or places her paw on the book they’re reading to her preventing them from turning the pages, hahaha!” – Laura