Therapy animals play an important role in the lives of people in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, hospices and retirement homes. The perfect therapy pet is well mannered, calm, easy going, friendly and eager to meet new people. If you think you and your pet would fit the bill of enriching the lives of others, maybe it’s time to have him certified as a therapy animal.
Canines are the most common animal used as a therapy pet, but horses, donkeys and cats are also quite effective. Hamsters, rabbits, birds and fish are excellent for people in assisted living settings or group homes. Just the presence of an animal can change the feel of a typical clinical environment to a more home-like setting, which helps to reduce stress and promote relaxation.
Because you and your pet must be able to work together as a team, both of you must demonstrate specific abilities. As your pet’s handler, you must be able to read their body language to know if they are feeling stressed out, anxious, bothered by something, getting tired or becoming over-stimulated. You need to interact with your pet in a positive way by praising, encouraging, calming and re-directing them with appropriate commands when necessary. You must be able to carry on a conversation with someone while paying attention to your pet. You need to also be mindful of the well-being and safety of your pet at all times, and maintain a professional and polite attitude while helping people interact with your pet.
A therapy dog needs to be well trained and not afraid of meeting strangers in different situations and unfamiliar places. He must be comfortable being touched and petted by unfamiliar people, including someone whose touch may feel different due to limited mobility. A good therapy dog enjoys going to new locations. He’s not bothered by sudden or loud noises, or other animals he may meet at a facility, and isn’t easily distracted. Your dog must be reliably housebroken, in good health (you need a health certificate from your vet), current on all of his vaccinations, free of external and internal parasites, understand and obey basic commands including come, sit, lie down, stay and leave it, and can walk calmly on a loose leash.
If your dog has all that down pat, the next step is to pass the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen test. You can find a testing site and evaluator on their website. In order for your dog to pass the CGC test, he must pass 10 requirements: friendly to strangers; sits politely to accept petting; appearance and grooming; walks on a loose leash; walks calmly through a crowd; obeys sit and stay commands; comes when called; reaction to another dog; reaction to distractions; accepts supervised separation from his owner.
There are a variety of therapy organizations that work with therapy teams. Depending on the organization, there may be other requirements they ask for besides the Canine Good Citizen test. You can find a listing of these organizations here.
A therapy cat needs to be confident, friendly and calm in new surroundings, and able to handle unpredictable situations and loud noises. The cat must be healthy, comfortable wearing a harness and leash, show no aggression towards people or other animals (especially dogs), able to ride in a car, not stressed out at a facility, reliably housebroken, enjoy interacting with unfamiliar people, and current on vaccinations.
If you and your cat meet an organization’s requirements, you may take an online training course or one in person. Upon completion of the course, you and your cat will be evaluated and go to a facility on supervised visits for a trial period.
Cats and dogs that are fed a raw diet are not eligible to become therapy pets because it can put people with compromised immune systems at greater risk of developing an infection. Most organizations have a minimum age requirement for therapy dogs and cats – at least a year old. In addition, you need to have known your pet for at least six months.
People of all ages can benefit from interacting with a therapy pet, and bringing comfort and joy to someone is rewarding for both you and your pet. If you are interested in partnering with your pet as a therapy team, being certified opens up the door to many facilities around the country. Once your pet is certified, you can be assured he has what it takes to be a great therapy animal.
Read more articles by Linda Cole