Therapy dogs are used to benefit the physical and/or emotional well-being of people. Generally, Animal Assisted Therapy is supervised by a health professional to augment physical therapy for a patient, while Animal Assisted Activity involves volunteers sharing their dogs with various populations to benefit their emotional health.
There are myriad opportunities for sharing your therapy dog and brightening the lives of others. Therapy dogs may visit nursing homes, hospitals, schools or institutions with confined or disabled patients. It is well-established that petting a dog can lower blood pressure and reduce stress. Often, a withdrawn person will begin his first "return to contact" by smiling at a dog or reaching out to pet one. The interaction with the animal is non-threatening and the dog is non-judgmental, which can encourage a patient to begin to interact with a living being. A therapy dog often initiates the first smile seen in many months on the face of a nursing home resident.
In other settings, interaction with a dog can be a reward for good behavior from an autistic or developmentally disabled child. Therapy dogs and their handlers can also volunteer in programs that have children read aloud to a dog, either at school or a public library. The child has an attentive, non-judgmental audience in the dog which is a great way to build confidence and proficiency in reading.
A therapy dog must be gentle and under control at all times and should possess an affable temperament. He must be able to handle strange voices, loud noises, erratic movements, wheelchairs or other medical equipment with aplomb. He must also be calm around other dogs. If he knows a few tricks, they can be a great ice breaker for people who may be reluctant at first to interact with a dog.
There are three major national organizations that test and register therapy dogs, Therapy Dogs International, Inc. (TDI), The Delta Society (through their Pet Partners program) and Therapy Dogs, Inc. Both the Delta Society and TDI, Inc. are international orga nizations. Therapy Dogs, Inc. serves the U.S. and its territories, Canada and Puerto Rico. All three organizations require that the dog be tested and evaluated by one of their evaluators in order to ensure that the dog has a temperament suited to therapy work.
Many all breed and obedience clubs have a group of people who meet regularly to organize and make therapy visits. If there are no organized groups in your area to contact, you may be able to locate facilities that welcome individual visits by trained dogs. The three main therapy dog organizations carry liability insurance for their registered dogs, so if you visit on your own, check your homeowner’s insurance carrier to make sure you have coverage in the event of any accidents.
Therapy Dog participation is one of the several areas from which points can be accumulated in order to achieve the VIP Versatility Certificate or Versatility Certificate Excellent award.
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