As dog lovers, we know how a dog can comfort, energize, motivate and bring joy. Therapy dogs take those good qualities and spread them around.
One of Baxter’s friends, Leto the Great Dane, is a therapy dog. In fact, her owner, Cory Huston, coordinates the St. John Ambulance therapy dog program in Burlington, Ontario. I recently sat down with Cory to ask about her experience in the program.
While St. John Ambulance operates all around the world, its only therapy dog program is in Canada.
Therapy dogs with St. John are active in nursing homes, group homes, schools, libraries and even hospitals (in some areas).
People join because they want to give back to their community and share the joy of their dog with others.
How to join
People self-identify as volunteers. Cory and her team evaluate the dogs before admitting them to the program.
“There is a test involved which takes a couple of hours to see how your dog reacts to other dogs, to people, to noises and distractions—to simulate what would happen in a therapy environment,” says Cory. “We want dogs to be happy doing this work.”
St. John does not provide or require any training for the dogs. However, dogs have to have basic obedience skills and people have to have control of their dogs. Cory explains, “Your dog can’t pull you down the hallway of a nursing home.”
A typical visit for a therapy dog
What does a therapy dog do?
Visits can happen one-on-one or in groups. In retirement homes, volunteers may gather in a common room and allow residents to meet and pet the dogs. In nursing homes, they may be assigned particular rooms and patients to visit.
Most shifts are about an hour, and volunteers try to see as many people as possible during that time. Shifts are available in the evening or during the day, depending on volunteers’ schedules.
Little dogs are particularly suited for people who are in bed or in wheelchairs, as they can sit in people’s laps. Leto, who is a Great Dane, is tall enough for a person in bed to easily pet her.
“All we’re doing is visiting. We’re there to make them have a nicer day,” says Cory. “The dog is the focus rather than the handler. In fact, most people don’t care whether you’re there or not. It’s all about the dog.”
80% of dogs in the St. John program work in retirement or nursing homes. After a special evaluation, dogs also do sessions in schools and libraries, visiting with classes or helping children with reading. In Paws for Stories, dogs lay on the floor beside children, who then read a story to the dog to help them build confidence in reading.
“I had a little boy and when I first started working with him in the fall, he couldn’t read. It took ages for him to read even a word like ‘pig,'” shares Cory. “By June he was reading Marley and Me. Now he always has a book in his hand and he reads his sister bedtime stories. That is why I do it. It’s so rewarding.”
Safety for dogs and people
Safety is the first concern in the program. Volunteers are not allowed to move patients in case of falls. Dogs have to stay on leash and the handler has to hold the leash at all times.
“Most of the time I prefer that people don’t do tricks with the dogs. Old people’s skin is so fragile, and just doing high fives can scratch them,” says Cory.
Handlers need to also take care of their dogs—watching for things on the floor that their dog might eat, people who want to feed the dogs, or children who pull ears or tails. “Sometimes kids tend to be careless,” explains Cory’s husband Jeremy. “They’ll be sitting with Leto and then they’ll jump up, and they’ll stand on her foot. I have to be careful that they don’t kick Leto by mistake.”
Characteristics for success
The type of therapy depends on the dog. For example, Leto thrives more with children, as opposed to retirement and nursing homes. Dogs have to be well socialized, so that they are comfortable with other dogs, people, noises and situations. Dogs also have to be up-to-date on their vaccinations and in general good health. Therapy dogs should be very self-confident, calm and want to visit with people.
Likewise, the handler has to be calm, personable, friendly and like people. As well, it’s important that handlers respect the rules of their therapy dog organization and be committed to completing their volunteer shifts—St. John asks for one hour a week from its volunteers.
Even with the most social of dogs, therapy sessions can be tiring. Leto works for about an hour and a half at a time. “Longer than that and she’ll turn her back on people or go lay down under a table. She won’t interact with people anymore,” says Jeremy. For a therapy session to work, your dog must be having fun. Pay attention to your dog and know her limits.
Challenges for therapy dogs and their handlers
As rewarding as it is to be a therapy dog, sometimes volunteers encounter challenging situations. With people who have dementia or autism, some days they love your dog, and the next day they don’t. People may yell or cry.
“You have to be really careful how your dog reacts when somebody’s crying because some dogs just really hate it and get upset and just come over to you and cower. Other dogs want to go over and say what’s going on and depending on the reason for the kid crying that may not be the best situation,” says Cory.
Some people have little impulse control and may react physically—one child once punched Leto.
Most of the time, staff at the facility will advise the handlers if they’re going into a challenging situation and will often accompany the volunteers and the dogs.
Therapy dogs provide numerous benefits for people they encounter. For staff and teachers, therapy dogs can help them deal with the stress of their jobs. For patients and children, its a fun, calming activity during their days.
And for the volunteers, the appreciation they receive and happiness they bring keeps them committed to the program.
Cory tells the story of being at a nursing home and seeing an elderly gentleman sitting in a chair.
The man’s daughter came over and asked if they could bring the dog to visit with her dad. So they took the dog over. The man was just sitting there and then all of the sudden he started to pet the dog and then started talking to the dog.
The daughter burst into tears and explained her dad hadn’t spoken in three months. Not a single word.
“He sat there and talked to that dog for about 20 minutes,” says Cory. “That kind of stuff is why I do what I do.”
Have you considered training your dog for therapy work? Do you know any therapy dogs?
St. John Ambulance therapy dog program started in Canada in 1992 and today more than 3,300 therapy dog teams give more than 230,000 hours of their time each year bringing joy and comfort to the sick, lonely and those who need a friendly visit.
Julia Thomson is a regular writer for That Mutt. Visit her blog Home on 129 Acres where she writes about her adventures of country living and DIY renovating.
Happy New Year, everyone. It’s my first post of 2017, and I’m sharing some of the goals I have for Baxter and myself for the year ahead.
1. Take a dog training class.
Ongoing training is valuable for our dogs, ourselves and our bond. Classes are a way to try something new and have fun. It’s been awhile since Baxter and I did formal classes together. I don’t know exactly what we’ll try, but I’m looking forward to finding something new for us to experience together.
2. Better dental care.
The best trick we have for taking care of Baxter’s teeth is giving him a soup bone every so often. Chewing the bone chips the tartar off his teeth and keeps them nice and white. However, there are a few teeth where this doesn’t work quite as well, and I’ve noticed some of his gums seem a bit discoloured.
Teeth health is important to overall health. This year, I’m aiming to do a better job of regular tooth brushing, along with the bones.
3. Go back to basics.
Off leash hiking is one of Baxter’s and my favourite activities. However, as I’ve written before, dude has a very big comfort zone and sometimes ventures farther away from me than I like. On our final hikes of last year, he would occasionally choose his own adventure for up to 15 minutes at a time.
Even though I’m proud of how he would eventually come back to me, it always made me anxious when he disappeared. And for the other people we’re hiking with, standing around waiting for him to catch up or even walking back along the trail with me to find him isn’t the most fun.
We’re going to start this year by focusing on basic obedience. Spending time on recall, leash dragging, rules, boundaries and limitations will help to strengthen our bond so that when we return to off leash activities, they’re enjoyable for both of us.
I enjoy setting goals at the start of each year. They help me to prioritize what’s most important and provide a focus the rest of the year.
And what’s most important is lots of time with my dog, experiencing as much as possible and doing fun things together.
Do you have any goals or New Year’s resolutions for your dog?
What would you like to focus on with your dog over the next year?
Any suggestions of interesting classes I should investigate?
Shortly before Christmas, my dog Baxter and I took part in one of our favourite holiday traditions: our trainer’s annual holiday hike.
Every December, our trainer invites all her past clients to a local conservation area for a hike. It’s a pretty special experience to be part of—dozens of dogs and people tromping together through the woods.
For Baxter, it’s a gift—new dogs (including a Shar Pei in her sharp coat and a young German Shepherd who knew how to box), new people, being outside, running off leash.
As we celebrate the holidays, I hope that you and your dog can enjoy a special outing of your own. Maybe it’s a hike with some doggie friends, or maybe it’s something different. Or maybe you already have a tradition that you enjoy together.
However you celebrate, I wish you and your dogs happy holidays.
Thanks to Lindsay for letting me guest post and share some of our experiences. And thanks to all of you for reading along. Baxter and I will be back in 2017.
‘Tis the season for parties. In between planning the guest list, the food, the decorations and all of the other details, it’s helpful to think about our dogs and make sure the party is festive for them as well.
We hosted our annual Christmas party recently, and here are some of my tips to keep your dog comfortable during a party.
1. Make sure your dog has a place of his own.
For Baxter, that meant his bed in his usual corner of the living room—party central. While Baxter is not a party animal, he did want to keep an eye on the festivities.
If your dog is shy, anxious around crowds, nervous around children, aggressive with strangers, overly exuberant, it may be better to put her in a quiet place, like a bedroom or a crate.
It may be hard for your dog to contain his excitement with lots of new people arriving. Leading up to the party, work on proper greeting behaviour. And be aware of who’s at your party. Some people are afraid of dogs. Now is not the time to help them work through their fear.
3. Tell guests that you have a dog.
If your guest list includes acquaintances or people you don’t see very often, it’s polite to let them know that you have a dog when you invite them. My brother-in-law is allergic to dogs. When he comes to visit, he makes sure to prepare with his medication, so that he can enjoy the party.
4. Let your guests know how to interact with your dog.
Some people have not spent a lot of time with dogs or may not be entirely comfortable around them. Telling them, “She really likes it when you scratch under her chin” can help them get off on the right foot with your dog.
I’ve had some experiences where people—usually people who call themselves dog people—grab Baxter by the collar or the tail. They think they’re being funny, and don’t seem to realize the fun is all one-sided. It can be hard to rebuke family or friends, but you need to stand up for your dog. Be calm and polite. Say, “Please don’t do that. Baxter doesn’t like to be held/touched/handled that way.”
5. Be aware of what your dog eats.
The best part of parties is the food—but food can present a lot of issues for your dog. If people are sharing their food, your dog can end up eating way more calories than he needs, having an upset tummy or even ingesting something toxic. Play it safe and tell your guests not to feed your dog. (And make sure your dog doesn’t eat the decorations.)
However, special food can also help your dog to associate the party with goodness. For us, that meant mixing some of Baxter’s favourites—turkey and squash—in with his dinner.
6. Keep everyone safe.
Safety has to be your first consideration in any decision you make for your dog.
It can be simple—watch that wagging tail around the wine glasses—or serious—keep the dog out of the kitchen so that no one trips and spills a hot pot on him.
Baxter can sometimes be a bit growly if strangers pet him while he’s snuggled in his bed. Letting people know that Baxter should be left alone when he’s in bed protects both Baxter and our guests.
The most important part of planning a party is to be real about your dog and what’s best for him. That way, you, your guests and your dog can all enjoy the party.
P.S. A final tip from Baxter: “I told you not to vacuum. Aunt K invited me to sit with her on the couch. And she’s wearing black! Everyone should have fur. Vacuuming is a waste of time—and that machine is not nice.”
What would you add to this list? How does your dog do when you have visitors?
Julia Thomson is a regular writer for That Mutt. Visit her blog Home on 129 Acres here.
Thanks to everyone who shared their tricks over the last month. It’s been fun seeing all the talented dogs out there.
In case you missed it, at the end of October—in honour of Hallowe’en—Lindsay and I shared some tricks for treats from our four-legged sidekicks. We also shared our tips for teaching your dog how to do tricks and suggested some tricks to try such as twirl, crawl, back up, shake and speak.
There’s still time to post your tricks on Instagram with hashtag #MuttTricks and tag @thatmuttcom. You can also post your dogs on That Mutt’s Facebook page. Lindsay is planning a round-up post to show off your dogs!
I’ve been impressed with the tricks people have been posting on Instagram so far. See them here: #MuttTricks.
Inspired by Remy and some of the other dancing doggies, Baxter and I have been working on “twirl.”
We haven’t quite got it down yet (human error when I drop the treats notwithstanding).
There’s still a lot of luring, and he’s so fixated on the treats that I don’t think he’s processing the twirling motion yet.
When I’ve tried luring him with an empty hand and keeping the treats in my other hand to reward him once he spins, he gets distracted halfway through. He loses the scent of the treats and tries to go find it.
To be fair to my poor puppy, I haven’t been quite as consistent as I should have been. Bax and I have missed a day here and there, so he’s not the spinning superstar that Remy and some of the other twirlers are.
However, I’ve definitely seen improvement over the past week, and I feel like the motion is coming more naturally to him.
Baxter’s ability to twirl (or lack thereof) was not the point of this exercise. Instead, it was about trying something new with my dog. Spending time together. Thinking in different ways. Working together. Bonding.
I feel like we’ve done all of that, and it’s been fun. Plus, it’s helped motivate me to keep finding new things we can do together.
What tricks have you been working on lately?
We love seeing what you’ve been up to with your dog!
There’s still time to post your tricks on Instagram with hashtag #MuttTricks and tag @thatmuttcom. You can also post your dogs on That Mutt’s Facebook page or email your pics and videos to Lindsay@ThatMutt.com.
Julia Thomson is a regular writer for That Mutt. Visit her blog Home on 129 Acres here.
Blogger Lindsay Stordahl Lindsay Stordahl (with her mutt Ace) is the blogger behind That Mutt.
Blogger Julia Thomson Julia Thomson (with her mutt Baxter) writes regularly for That Mutt.
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