With Coronavirus on the uprise in America, more people are working from home, and  thriving business’, schools and libraries are shutting down or going to e-learning, groceries and pharmacies are changing their hours and hospitals and nursing homes are changing their visitation policies. Wearing masks are becoming the new norm for the country.

Those of us who volunteer with a therapy dog have had to find new ways to help out in our community. Since Dickens is so used to the routine of going to school every Tuesday, I make sure that he goes for a car ride every week, even if it is only to the bank or to my friends house for a walk in the woods to break up the monotony of eating and sleeping.

Continuing to train on a daily basis has been beneficial for both of my dogs. This keeps them sharp, and also gives them a distraction. We practice scent work with cones, basic obedience and therapy skills and tricks. They will do anything for food.  I have also been reading and recording kids books on video to share with the children that Dickens and I miss at the schools and libraries we used to visit. Lots of retakes too, since Dickens doesn’t have that much patience when it’s just me reading a book. I quess children are more exciting!!

Now that the state has started to open up some events have started to come back. Handlers are wearing masks, dogs are being wiped down between visits with hospital staff outside of facilities and events are being staged to prevent the spread of Covid-19.  Regrettably libraries and schools have yet to include therapy dog teams back into their in school programs. Only time will tell if the new ‘normal’ will include visits inside hospitals, nursing homes,adult day care, schools, rehabilitation centers and when they will begin again.  Even so the skills that our dogs know and we as handlers have need to stay sharp, so it is important to continue to practice them even if you are staying home. My dogs enjoy the work just as much as I do so I try to get them out as often as possible to expose them to other people and to change their environment.

I was at the hospital the other day, with out my dog visiting a friend, and I saw a dog wandering around with it’s owner with a internet bought red ‘therapy dog’ vest on. I really wanted to ask her what organization she was affiliated with, but thought better of it because I’m sure that there were many people there in the the lobby that were benefiting from having a dog visiting them.

So I guess the question is, how do you know a real therapy dog from one in disguise?

The answer is that a real therapy dog has been invited by the hospital, nursing home or care facility to provide a service to it’s clients and patients. The therapy dog should be wearing a vest or bandanna with the logo or insignia of the organization they volunteer with and the handler should also have identification that identifies both of them as a therapy dog team with the designated organization. This would prevent outside individuals from bringing their family pets to visit relatives when the facility employees are unaware of the facilities rules and expectations. It is imperative to have such rules in place because the average person does not know what problems they may encounter with a dog that may be uncomfortable in a hospital or nursing environment. Or they may not have the insurance to cover an accident.

Here is an example: My dog Dickens, like all dogs has 10 times the scent capabilities that I have, if not more. I learned early he is not fond of nursing facilities. Early in his therapy dog career we were visiting a nursing home that included hospice. He was fine, visiting patients and the relatives of a sick patient, but as soon as he got to her bed, where she was dying he literally dragged me from the room. I apologized to the family, and we left. Needless to say I advocated for my dog and we have not been back to a nursing  home or hospital environment.

So begs the question, would an ordinary  person recognize the signs of stress in their dogs?

Therapy dogs are happy and love everyone including strangers. They are trained to take their cues from their handler and should have solid basic obedience skills. Some young therapy dogs are put in hospital environments too early.  These pups are excited and eager to please and in their energetic way may knock over patients by jumping or inadvertently moving erratically. That is why it is important to train your dog in basic skills so you have control of your dog at all times and go through therapy dog training before entering a public hospital or private nursing home environment.

Ana and Dickens

Dickens’ and I are a monthly volunteer R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dog) team  at our local Indianapolis library. Recently another team joined us to assist at this particular library growling whenever he saw Dickens. At the library our job is to advocate for our dogs while each child reads a book out loud to the dog for a 10 minute period of time. Should the child have trouble with a word, we then can help them sound out the word, but we are not meant to be a reading tutor. Reading out loud to our dogs gives a child more confidence, builds their self esteem and improves their reading skills.

Dickens’ has been a therapy dog working with children since he was a year old and at eleven he is still very calm and tolerant.  Dickens’ and I have worked with children and even babies in libraries, domestic abuse centers, at family literacy nights, schools and in the aftermath of traumatic events. He has been stepped on and over, had his ears, long hair and tail pulled and has had toys and books dropped on him. Yes, he is very tolerant!

Dickens’ is normally non reactive around other dogs. He does not growl or bark at other dogs unless he wants to go over and visit them if he doesn’t know them. While working this has happened twice, in a training class and once during a school reading program. At the latter he barked at a new dog, but once I redirected him to look at me and told him ‘that is enough’, he stopped. He can be vocal at times and talk back occasionally, but that is almost always directed at me!! Silly dog.

I have a growing concern about new therapy reading dogs that growl at other teams when they are working with children. It is imperative that we realize that not all dogs are suited for a reading program.  Children especially should not be exposed to a growling dog, even when it is temporary and the dog is not growling at them it may scare the child, enough to ruin the whole experience for them.  If you are wanting to participate in a reading program at your school or library make sure your dog is well socialized around other dogs and active children. Reading therapy dogs and children are best served when the child or family return again to read to YOUR dog. Who doesn’t love a well mannered dog?

I was reading an article the other day about how New York state would be putting into law that pets would be allowed to be transported on emergency vehicles during a disaster. Good idea, since we are a world that see’s our pets as part of the family.

This got me to thinking about all of the loud sounds/noises that our dogs come into contact with while working as a therapy dog. I remember during a training class that one dog found that the clicker noise was too offensive to his sensitive ears. I can’t imagine what school bells, fire alarms and sirens would do.

Normally we don’t think about sounds that we hear everyday and aren’t concerned about. Our dogs of course hear the garbage truck enter our community long before it has even entered our street.  This elicits happy and excited barks of anticipation and warning to me and my neighbors at 7:00 am on Thursday mornings. Or there are the other critters in my house who like to play at night and of course one of my dogs has to comment on frequently. Sensitive ears, I would say so.

In hospitals a therapy dog would come in contact with hospital carts rattling by, lots of laughter, talking, ambulance sirens possibly at a distance or close up if they are working in the ER. They may also hear monitor noises from the machines in a patients room, fans, oxygen ventilators, call buttons, loud voices, telephones ringing and the list goes on. All of these sounds/noises can create a sensory overload to your dog. Be sure to watch him for signs of stress and leave when HE needs to, even if it is just to take a break.

School bells ringing for the changing of classes can be challenging especially if you are in the hall while they are ringing, but the most irritating one for my dog, Dickens, is the fire drill alarm when we are at school. We made it out with the kids the first time in an orderly fashion and that time it was a sunny day. The second time we were in an office area working with a student on her reading skills and things went topsy-turvy! When we reached the security doors at the front entrance they were locked.  EEGADS! The alarm was so loud that I was cringing at the sound as much as my dog, so the three of us turned around and returned to the office area to wait it out. Dickens got a Pup Cup for putting up with a handler that wasn’t prepared. Cotton balls will be in my bag from now on for both of us!

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.