Many of us think that as a therapy dog team handler our job is to go to our assigned venue and wait for the public to come to us, and in some cases like at a college campus or school, that is true. In a hospital or visiting at a nursing home you most likely are visiting room to room with a site employee. But if you are at a place like an open outdoor event where you are wanting to engage with the public in what you do and talk about your therapy dog organization than you will need to get out there with or without a dog and mingle. Easier said than done, right?

Not all of us who volunteer know that much about the organization that we volunteer for. This is where reading the brochures and taking those extra classes come in handy. So if you don’t feel like you can hold your own in a conversation about what, where and how your organization operates take some extra classes, online or within your organization, and join a committee. I find that I learn more by doing, so in the early days of doing therapy dog work I did all of the above!  I found classes and committees to be both informative and a lot of fun and I met other volunteers that had remarkable experiences to share and advanced levels of handler and dog skills training that have enhanced my own.

Another venue that you may find yourself with some down time at, is the library. Dickens and I started going to a new library during the summer. It does not have the volume of children signed up each month that we are used to, so we have spent some days practicing with me reading to Dickens out loud! I have been talking to the staff and the volunteer coordinator at our organization to determine how to generate some interest in the program. Not only is advertising within the school newsletter important to make the parents aware, but a physical presence is also important. Dickens and I plan on being at the library once a month regardless, even walking around the children’s library looking for potential readers. I also tell parents that we will be there each month to encourage them to bring their children back. Afterall there is only so much staring into each other’s eyes adoringly Dickens and I can do!


Nap Time

Every dog including therapy dogs need an ample amount of rest. Some therapy dogs can go over the recommended one hour visit at a venue as their  owner/handlers do not recognize the signals when a do is tired or done for the day.

My 10-year-old English Springer Spaniel falls immediately asleep in the afternoon after an hour of listening to children read in a school reading program. The stimulation seems to be too much. He gets overly excited on the ride to the school, lying on the console between the two front bucket seats, panting and bouncing between there and the back seat. Upon arrival, after a quick grass sniff, he wants to go inside and see everyone, wiggling and wagging his stumpy tail and sniffing fingers and shoes of every child that comes over to pet him. Even though he may only have four children actually read to him it is likely that he will interact with up to 15-30 children at the end of the hour. Elementary school children are fascinated when a dog is allowed to come to school. Once we leave he acts sedated in the back seat. Well, at least until we get to Starbucks for his pup cup, then he wakes up!

I recently went to a dog trade show where the public was invited to bring their well mannered pets to the show. Sad to say not all of the owners are up to speed as to how to handle their dogs or what type of collar or harness to dress their dog in.

For too long one collar has been in the hands of the general public who have no business using them. The prong collar originally was on the market primarily as a training tool for experienced dog trainers in police and military work. Now you see pet owners  parading around everywhere with them on their dogs.  Most individuals don’t know that the collars are supposed to be snug, which I guess is a good thing sort of, and that they are NOT supposed to come off over the dog’s heads but that the links are supposed to be SEPARATED to take the collar off!

The problem with a dog wearing a prong collar is that, like the choke chain, it teaches a dog to fear their handler by the action that they use to correct him, yanking the leash (popping), hanging him (holding him up by his leash) until he behaves appropriately. This is what those of us who train dogs refer to negative reinforcement training, where you punish the dog for bad behavior rather than positive reinforcement where you reward the dog for good. Earning an animals trust and love is what ‘Man’s Best Friend’ is all about. An inexperienced owner who uses a prong collar because their dog is too big or pulls on the the leash, needs to take an obedience training class with their dog and learn alternative ways to control their dog through training.

Next time you go to the pet store, put a prong collar on your arm, make sure it is tight and yank on it so you can see how it would feel on your dog’s neck and jugular.

There are many different options in training harnesses and head collars found at your local pet store. Finding a harness with the D ring in the front is best so that you are leading the dog rather then your dog leading you. This may make it much easier and more enjoyable to walk your dog.


A few days ago I was dropping off my Springer Spaniel at the groomer. While waiting to talk to the groomer, I noticed through the window that she had a dog on the table that she was drying with blow dryer. The dog was hooked up to the grooming arm noose but the groomer was not touching or holding the dog to reassure him in anyway. I found this a little disturbing. My dog has been standing on a grooming table since he was 10 weeks old, so he is used to it, but even so I would want a groomer to have the sense to touch him while he is on the table, urr! A dog who has never been or rarely groomed or blown dry would likely be scared!

So this made me think about therapy dogs and how they go into venues and social outings that they may or may not be comfortable volunteering at. It is our job as their handler’s to make sure that they are happy and not scared or anxious in these surroundings. Although it is preferred to select a venue that is best for the dog and not for ourselves this does not always happen.

A way that we can help our dogs succeed in addition to basic training is to continually ‘touch’ them while they are visiting patients in hospitals and nursing homes or listening to young readers.  Physical contact is a way to bridge the gap between an anxious pet and it’s handler. I have also found that sitting next to my dog at his level makes a big difference. It is getting up again that I have a problem with! Even if you are in a social setting make sure to reach down often and pet your dog, giving him added comfort and inclusion. As this setting may be boring to some dogs.

Physical contact will solidify the bond between you and your dog and will give your dog the added confidence that you are with him every step of the way.

A common remark made by therapy dog handlers to clients when a dog is overly excited and exuberantly greet’s a patient is, “Oh, he is SO excited to see you”.  As a therapy dog handler it is essential that our dogs have basic obedience training and have been taught not to jump or lean on people. Leaning is especially hard to break. My Lab/Airedale mix, Eddie, is a leaner. He never did it when he worked as a therapy dog, but he still does to people he knows. I think the reason he never did it to the clients was because I always would positioned him, usually with my knee so he couldn’t. He could visit by resting his head on a clients lap, or by standing next to them by their bed or wheelchair. He is very tall, calm and easy for patients to reach.

Not all dogs are calm when visiting a therapy venue. They become excited by the odors, the environment, sounds, new people, children and food. If they are new to the venue, they may even be frightened.  Their tail may be between their legs, they may be looking back at you for reassurance wanting a touch or a treat. In either case you would want to have taken your dog for a long walk or a run before visiting the venue. This will help you and him relax, in time for your visit.

This technique can be used for any possible stressful situation that comes up. I use it if I am going to have company over, or if I am going to take a group dog training class. It is amazing how exhausted a dog can get after a few laps around the yard. Another way to wear your dog out is to use a Kong Wobbler, or another dog treat dispenser. Each dispenser comes in a variety of sizes and styles but the Wobbler  is red and large. You put a few treats or kibble in the hole dispenser. I make my dogs sit and wait until I release them. Once I do it is a good half hour of fun for them to get all of the kibble out of the dispenser after knocking it around the house with their nose. Shortly afterwards both of them are conked out for a snooze.

As advocates for our dogs in all circumstances we must take the time to make sure that they are properly trained and prepared for every environment we take them to when helping others.

Every pet owner who trains their dog to be a therapy dog has an idea as to where they want to spend time volunteering their services. But not surprisingly, not all dogs or owners for that matter are up for the task.

When I first thought of training my English Springer Spaniel of being a therapy dog I just wanted to help others. So I read up on everything I could get my hands on to learn about the different types of opportunities that were out there, as well as learn what type of training and organizations were available for my dog and myself.

Springer’s are known to be great family dogs so initially I envisioned us at any venue, and we did try many venues, but when it came down to it we had to weed out quite a few. Knowing your dog, and your dog’s strengths, weaknesses, behaviors, stress signals, what he wants when he whines or barks, when he needs to go out, when he is done, or what it means and looks like when a dog shuts down.

My dog’s best fit turned out NOT to be in a hospital, nursing home, adult day care or anyplace where there was a possibility of high odor or new scents.  We tried; I took him to Hospice and he visited all of the relatives around the room, but when he got to the bed, of the soon to be deceased, he turned away and dragged me from the room.  After that we did not go to a hospital, but tried a nursing home instead.  This led to more distractions from all of the odors that he could smell but I couldn’t, both human, medicinal and chemical smells from cleaning. This made him frantic to find the source so he had no interest in visiting with people. Not an ideal environment for THIS therapy dog.

The next step was to find a venue where he would be happy and still experience affection and give love. So I decided to try working with children. Visiting a venue prior to taking your dog is a great way of determining if it is a good fit, especially if it isn’t. I went to  observe a grief support program for children without my dog. There were other dog teams at this venue so it was not one on one visitation. The children were accompanied by a team member of the venues organization and came into visit the dogs with different age groups of children. There were three dog teams in a very small room.  Some of the boys were loud and wild, as young as my dog was it probably wouldn’t bother him, but it made me nervous and that would ruin the visit for my dog. So I felt that this venue was not for us.

We found our niche at the local library and then later as a R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dog) in local Title 1 schools in Indiana. What this visit entails is young readers read to my dog, while he listens intently and lies quietly next to them. If they need help with a word then I will help, but otherwise it is between them and my dog. Occasionally my dog will make comments (me) about the story or roll on his side to get closer to the child and get petted.

When you choose a visitation venue it really needs to be a good choice for both of you. And it is true that if you are anxious or nervous that your reaction will travel down the leash to your dog.

I was thinking today about all of the articles I have been reading lately and of how the terminology that is used has become a bit blurry when describing what a therapy, service, assistance dog or emotional support animal actually does or mean and how each are different.

So here goes…..

Animal Assisted Interventions

By definition an Animal Assisted Activity (AAA) therapy animal is a pet owned by an individual and is taken to facilities like a hospital, nursing home, school, library, adult day care to visit with a group of people. Some therapy animals even participate in a patient’s mobility rehabilitation by fetching a ball or tugging on a rope with them, thus working with them to improve their strength.  This is called Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT). AAT animals are also used in schools to help young readers improve their reading skills and gain confidence by reading out loud to a pet. An umbrella word currently in use is Animal Assisted Intervention (AAI) for both of these types of therapy with animals. Most organizations use pet dogs to accomplish AAA visitation, but in some cases cats, mini-horses, and even llamas have been known to be utilized.

Service and or Assistance Dogs

In the United States, the American Disabilities Act (ADA) only recognizes a dog as a Service/Assistance animal. A Service and or Assistance dog are one in the same. A Service dog is trained to help an individual with a disability with their daily living requirements.  The key word is disabled. A Service dog may provide support to their owner by bracing them to stand, pulling their wheelchair, opening doors, turning on lights, picking up dropped items, alerting for seizures, low sugar and doorbells etc.

Although there is currently no law registering service or assistance dogs it is likely that the federal government will implement this especially with the influx of veterans returning home injured from war currently and in coming years. This will not only help our war veterans, but also get rid of the ‘fake’ service dog trainers and online certifications that have popped up recently. In reality service dogs take a minimum of 2-3 years to train and usually cost upward from $10k-$20k to purchase. One third of the service dogs trained nationwide presently do not pass the Assistance Dogs International (ADI) Public Access Test.

Although the Public Access test is not required in all states, a service dog should be able to pass it if he is intended for use in public. Finding a responsible organization who trains and sells service dogs is important if you want a quality service dog partner.

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals (ESA) is a new term for a branch of service animal. ESA’s are prescribed by a mental health professional and are not limited to canines. You may live with your ESA anywhere as long as you have a written prescription from your doctor. You may also take your ESA into the cabin of a airplane when you  travel but you are NOT allowed to take your animal everywhere that a service dog is commonly allowed to go. ESA’s are not allowed in public facilities, like movie theaters, restaurants or clothing and grocery stores as service dogs are, because ESA’s are not NOT considered a service animal at this time.

So to be clear the difference between a service and or assistance dog and a Emotional Support Animal is a Service or Assistance dog can go ANYWHERE their owner with a disability goes because they are trained to provide daily living skills for their owner, as many disabilities may be life threatening. An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) provides a sense of love, companionship and comfort, security, lessens nervous behavior, anxiety, PTSD, panic, depression and is prescribed only by a mental health professional and does not have the same privileges that a service dog does in public.

Facility Dog

There is one other category that has gained popularity in this country. That is the Facility dog. Often times the facility dog is confused with a therapy dog. A facility dog is a therapy dog but the difference is that a facility dog is trained more like a service dog than a therapy dog, due to the longevity of the day. Facility dogs are often found in schools, funeral homes and in private practice doctor’s offices. Facility dogs are trained to withstand the long 8-9 hour day in one location like a service dog would.  Due to this a Facility dog’s life span, like a service dog’s, can be shortened due to stress. Facility dogs go to their place of work and stay all day with their handler interacting with the people that he is trained to be with. In funeral homes the dog is often at the front door there to greet people as they are coming to plan for a loved one’s funeral or they are there to spend time with the children that are there during a funeral. It is the responsibility of the handler or staff to give the facility dog breaks throughout the day, take them out, throw a ball, distress and recharge them for the rest of their day. Then at the end of the day they will go home with their handler.

Teachers seem to be the most common denominator who want to take their pets to the classroom.  Gone are the days of having a classroom pet, hamster or turtle. Certainly they were less distracting! But with therapy dogs becoming the norm in classroom reading programs it is understandable that a teacher would want to consider getting a facility dog. Bringing a facility dog into the classroom is a major commitment for a school. They would need to buy a dog, not a puppy, have it trained and someone on staff would become its owner/handler. The handler would take it home every night and bring it back every day. The dog would have a crate, toys, water, in the teacher’s office for relaxing and when they were working the teacher would be their handler. A teacher or counselor who takes on this role would want to take a dog handling class. This would especially be beneficial when working the dog around children. The facility dog should be already acclimated around children.  But learning a dog’s stress signals, continuing socialization and how a dog interacts with people, other animals and strange dogs is an essential tool for any handler. The school too will need to absorb insurance costs, staff and handler training, vet bills, etc.  There are a lot of things to consider when bringing a dog into a school environment and there will be many headaches too.

But the greatest reward is the unconditional love that the right facility dog will bring to the classroom.