People often ask me what it takes to be a therapy dog team and if their pup would be good at it. First off, I’m so excited that you’re interested in becoming a therapy dog team! Even if your dog doesn’t quite fit, the fact that you want to find out is still huge and so appreciated. I wanted to take you through my personal journey and hopefully, it can help you decide if this would be good for you and your dog. I tend to volunteer at medical facilities, but there are so many other volunteer opportunities – schools, nursing homes, assisted living communities, airports, and more!
How I got started…
In the spring of 2010, I saw a billboard in Peoria advertising the Paws 4 Healing program at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center. I was immediately intrigued. I was currently a sophomore at Bradley University, living at home (Peoria-born and raised) since I couldn’t take my dachshund, Lola, to the dorms and I saved my parents a little money along the way. In between my class schedule and work schedule, I had some odd free time here and there, so thought that this could be a great way to spend more time with Lola and bring some joy to some people at the hospital. I immediately got in touch with OSF’s Volunteer Services and got the lowdown on how I could become a part of their first batch of therapy dog teams (they prefer animal-assisted therapy instead, but I tend to use the terms interchangeably).
They told me that I had to first become a certified therapy dog team and recommended a couple of different organizations. I went with Therapy Dogs Inc, which is now called Alliance of Therapy Dogs. This is actually your first step in becoming a registered therapy dog team at any facility. You will have to apply to start the process of becoming a therapy dog team. Why get certified? Well, most places require it to bring your dog in and do any volunteer work. They don’t want anybody bringing ill-tempered or poorly behaved dogs in, so this is a way to make sure the dogs have the right temperament and the handler knows what they’re doing.
After you apply and do a background check, you’ll be sent all the guidelines and information. And yes, you will be tested on it! Then, you will set up a time to shadow with a tester/observer in your area. The T/O’s will accompany you and your dog on three visits at a facility. During these supervised visits, the T/O will instruct you and your dog on the art of visiting and give you advice and guidance while observing you in action. It’s okay to be nervous here, the T/O has had lots of experience and will give you all the pointers about what they’re looking for. I did my testing at a local nursing home. Lola was friendly and very attentive and loved all the attention she was getting. The T/O let me know that her temperament was exactly what they look for.
So what are they looking for? I usually sum it up as a calm, friendly dog who listens to their owner. That’s about it. They can be any breed and any age as long as they’re over 1 year old. They should walk well on a leash and wait before entering/exiting doors and elevators. They do not have to perform any special tricks or tasks but should sit, stay, and wait when asked. They must love getting petted and attention, though.
After we passed our 3 visits and the short test, we were officially certified! And yes, it does cost to be a member, but it’s really not much. For $30 a year (plus an initial one-time $10 new member fee and a $20 background check fee), a team can be registered with ATD. One of the most important parts of being registered with ATD is the fact that you are covered by their insurance in the event something happens to your dog or your dog accidentally injures someone. This is huge and also why they are so particular with who they accept into their ranks. It’s peace of mind when I volunteer and know that if something happens, I’m covered.
After you get registered and are officially certified, they will send you your certificates and heart tags that the dogs wear when they are officially volunteering. So now that you’re certified, you can start looking for programs/facilities that fit you and your dog. I got back in touch with OSF and let them know that I was certified and ready. We were only allowed to go on a handful of floors since the program was just starting up, but I noticed that Lola was especially attentive when we were on the oncology floor. An opportunity came up to volunteer at Illinois CancerCare, which had better hours for me at the time, as well, so we started over there. We continued volunteering at Illinois CancerCare until July 2015, when I could no longer get out there Monday – Friday 8am-5pm with my day job. I reluctantly retired Lola and said so long to my friends at Illinois CancerCare.
Coming out of retirement
Fast forward to September of 2018 when I was at Running with the Dogs taking photos and I ran into some of my original colleagues at the OSF Paws 4 Healing program. They were still there and there had been so many changes! Now you can visit Monday – Sunday 8am-8pm and they have added SO many new floors, including the Children’s Hospital. I was elated to hear this and started the application process immediately. It did take a few months to get everything squared away, but I’m happy to report that we rejoined OSF in February of 2019 and now Kai, my boy dachshund, is a registered therapy dog, too! I alternate between them when I visit and try to go twice a month. They ask for once a month, which I think is very doable.
I try to go to floors that haven’t had a Paws 4 Healing visit in a while and I always stop by the ICU Waiting Room before I head home. From personal experience, I can tell you that that waiting room is not a fun one and people are so appreciative for the distraction a dog can provide. Lola is in a dog cart now, so we enjoy going to the rehab floor since she had to go through rehabilitation herself! Kai is extra chill when he’s volunteering and loves laying on people’s laps. We even do dog parades for some of the holidays where we walk through various floors in costumes. Above is one from St. Patrick’s Day this year. If you’re ever a patient at OSF (cross your fingers that you’re not) or know someone who is, you can specifically request for one of the dogs to come see you! We can’t go to some floors for safety/health reasons, but we will sure try to come see you if you’re on an approved floor. Just let a staff member know that you’d like to request a dog visit and they’ll take care of it.
If you’re interested in joining Paws 4 Healing, click here! They are always looking for more volunteers, especially the four-legged, furry kind!
What if my dog isn’t cut out for it?
If you’ve made it this far and you can tell your dog would be a little too excited or skittish around strange people, sounds, and locations, that is okay. You can still support the cause! Not all dogs are meant to be therapy dogs and that’s okay! They still provide wonderful comfort and unconditional love to their owners. Spreading the word or even donating specifically to therapy dog programs can really help the cause.
Thank you so much for reading my little journey as a therapy dog team. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me if you have any questions at all.