The first time a Delta Pet Partner team takes their animal assisted therapy test, everything they have learned is fresh in their minds. Both the handler and the dog are excited and anxious to get started and use the skills they have achieved.
As both the dog and handler age or experience changes in their lives, it is important to retest to ensure that the team is still capable of working with the public.
Too often I observe a therapy dog in the field that is uncomfortable, growling, showing clusters of displacement signals and the owner is oblivious to it all.
If asked when that team tested, they may say something like “we passed our therapy dog test five, ten or even thirteen years ago.”
This means that no experienced professional has seen this team, or for that matter, this handler in many years.
No one has observed to determine if the animal has lost some of the critical skills necessary to be a safe therapy dog and even more importantly, has lost the desire to work.
Animals change as they age and their physical, emotional and psychological lives advance, as do humans.
The need to retest therapy teams is crucial but only one organization in Las Vegas does this. Delta Pet Partners requires full retesting every two years and both handler and animal must display the same level of skill and aptitude as they did when originally tested.
As an animal ages and has some physical limitations, that is taken into consideration during the testing process. But the limitations or challenges can in no way hamper that animal’s ability to interact with the public.
For instance a dog that is blind or losing its sight may become hand shy or fearful of what it cannot see. That dog has to be handled and tested as any other dog and approached by strangers and new sounds and sights to determine if he or she is still not only safe but thoroughly enjoying the experience.
A dog with physical limitations such as arthritis or a loss of a limb has to perform the tasks required in whatever fashion he or she can. Perhaps it means going into the Down from the Sit but the command has to be given and the command cannot be refused.
Of course new means of communicating with an older or impaired animal is allowed. A deaf dog can use hand signals for instance. But the Evaluator has to be advised of this in advance.
Delta Pet Partners retests therapy teams every two years. This way we can observe if any behaviors over time have altered, such as a dog no longer wishing to be brushed or touched on his feet.
We also observe if the handler has had any changes in his/her life that would preclude visiting or simply necessitate new techniques. For instance a handler may have had some injury and now needs to work with their dog in their lap.
It is also a good time to make sure the team is still committed to volunteering and actually keeping up with their assignments.
The retesting process is quite fun because we get to see the progress teams make with experience. The role playing takes on new meaning as we can discuss actual scenarios they have seen in the field and share best practices for how they approached each new situation. And as both dog and handler become more experienced, and love what they are doing, showcasing the team’s abilities is a joy to watch.
And it is always a joy to see a team that originally tested as Predictable elevate to Complex status – a true achievement that only experience can bring about.
Of course, over time it is also critical to observe if a dog or handler is ready for retirement. The toughest decision to make is to recognize when a dog can no longer be effective and that working may be too stressful on the animal. But this is why retesting is so important. Understanding that the animal’s welfare and the welfare of the clients you visit is of utmost importance and makes a team reliable over time and ensures that everyone involved is well taken care of.