Firstly, don’t wait too long before beginning your career. Some programs only require a few hours of volunteering per year. This is no way to become an experienced team and to keep your dog’s skill level to a standard of excellence. Delta Pet Partners average one to two hours per week and this ensures not only that the team remains capable but that the animal in particular is engaged and contentedly working.
Getzy decided to get right to work a few days after receiving his documents from Delta. He accompanied another more experienced dog to his first facility and learned very quickly the ins and outs of successful therapy dogs.
During class Getzy revealed an innate fondness for all people, not preferring elderly or children or teenagers. So he was suitable for a mixed environment. He showed a very strong ability to “stay on his place” for long stretches of time and be still and steady for clumsy petting. He had a real connection with children very young (3-5 years of age) and the teenagers he studied with. He has no health or physical limitations that would preclude him from walking on slippery surfaces and is very comfortable working in small spaces with other animals.
Getzy tested for a Predictable environment which meant we should start with a calm, relaxed, easily predicted environment. Getzy wanted to work with Kirby so we went together to one of our favorite facilities for an early evening visit. The clients were between dinner time and bed time so they were very happy to have the dogs visit.
Getzy enjoyed the car ride and as soon as we arrived, sniffed out the other dogs so he could mix his scent with theirs in the area outside. What a good boy!
As we entered the building Getzy was very interested in everything around him. He smelled and looked and listened but never vocalized or moved from his post.
We began with a client known to adore the dogs and Getzy was a great surprise for her. Kirby settled back in his stroller so Getzy could have all the attention and a lovely bond was formed. Then Kirby wanted his turn so we placed him on the towel on the bed alongside Getzy. Well, Getzy turned to see what the pro was doing. As soon as Kirby lay down, so did Getzy. If Kirby walked a little closer to his “friend” in the bed,” so did Getzy,
We spent about an hour and saw many different people. The first visit will tell a complete story about the training you received and the naturalness of you and your animal as a team. You want to be so relaxed in your ability as a handler and confidence in your dog’s steadiness that you can truly engage with whomever you are meeting.
During that first visit pay very close attention to your animal’s signals. You will see that your animal may give off displacement signals with particular people – perhaps they have an unusual odor or are shaky and your animal perceives uncertainty. Watch for those people your animal especially enjoys. How long is your animal’s attention span? Is he comfortable being with one person for 10-15 minutes or more or does he start to shift and fidget? Does he settle in easily on his “place” and look intensely at the person he is visiting? Do you have to prompt him to go towards anyone?
Don’t let your first visit be too long and take at least one break to allow your animal to go potty, get some fresh air, have a drink.
Getzy had a most successful first visit – he easily adapted to the routine of the skilled nursing facility and loved working side by side with a more experienced dog. Getzy kept looking over at Kirby and mirroring his behavior. Ok Kirby, lay down on the towel, so will I. Ok, Kirby move closer to be reached, I can do that too!
Getzy brought one woman almost to tears and she called him “Precious.” One client was very quiet and tired but a slight smile creased her lips as Getzy got close enough for her to feel him.
Therapy teams will have many “first” visits – to new environments, with new team members, with new clients. By never getting too lax in your watchfulness over your animal you can make every first time a memorable one.
For more tips about that critical first visit, click here