(The therapy dogs mentioned in this article are not Delta Pet Partner registered teams)
A good friend is in the hospital. She herself has a wonderful therapy dog and has been missing her dogs for quite a while now. They are being cared for but she misses them. Her stays in the hospital have been lengthy and her dogs cannot visit her, even her own therapy dog.
So when she heard they had therapy dogs at this particular hospital she was thrilled and couldn’t wait to meet them.
Unfortunately her experiences with the dogs who volunteered at this particular hospital did not provide the comfort she craved. This is how she described one interaction:
“I was doing my laps in the hallway and there was a therapy dog and handler. It was a very calm dog and you know I know how to approach a dog. I put my hand out for the dog to sniff and then I stroked the dog. What really floored me was the handler then proceeded to pull the dog away from me, so I wasn’t able to continue any interaction with the dog. As a patient, it really was hurtful to have that done. To be honest it was a good wake up call to how important it is to have a positive effect with our handling skills. I almost went back to say something to this woman, because I was so hurt by her action.”
A second dog team came by her room and stood in the hallway and the dog turned away from her. The owner tried to make the dog face forward and said “You’d think after two years of doing this she would have figured out what to do.”
This displays an even greater issue with this team. The dog obviously did not want to do this nor have the natural affinity for people, new people, all people. The handler wants to be a therapy team but does the dog?
This turning away almost brought my friend to tears and she is such an experienced dog person. She knew this dog had no desire to be there, no desire to meet her and it hurt her feelings, while at the same time she felt badly for the dog being forced to do something it does not enjoy.
A third episode happened with me when I went to visit her. I was in the lobby and saw a therapy dog. I was so happy to see this lovely dog. I went over and just put my hand out and said “dogs love me, may I pet your dog?” The owner never even looked at me but pulled her dog so tightly on a choke collar, it was dragged beside her. She never acknowledged me and kept her dog on a few inches of chain. I was stunned.
The next instance my friend had was when a therapy dog entered her room wearing a shock collar.
I do not know of any therapy program that permits shock collars. And those that do permit choke chains may not understand how this communicates to the public. I thought the dog in the lobby was being held so close because perhaps the owner did not have confidence in the dog’s behaviors, thus it would make a less experienced dog person very anxious.
And the final experience my friend had with a dog was one who came into her room, all the way in! But as soon as she saw the dog she knew it was expressing some stress signals. The dog was so tired and just wanted to be done. The owner did not seem to observe this in his dog or think it mattered as he went on his visit. He said the dog had been in the hospital almost two hours … this meant he was hot and perhaps thirsty and needed that much sought after break. Pet Partners requires a break every half hour.
We learn in the Delta Pet Partner Workshop to first “do no harm.” This does not simply apply to physical harm, but emotional harm as well. We are the most important end of the leash and must want to meet new people and converse with them, all the while handling our animals in a calm, positive manner.
And your dog must want to do this!
Never ignore someone interested in your dog. Never turn away or have your dog turn away. Never overwork your animal so it is stressed and detached. Never be afraid to have your animal approach people or people approach your dog.
If you are unsure how your dog will react, you should not be a therapy team.
Why did these owners pull back their dogs? Could they be uncertain of their dog’s reactions? Could they be shocked by my friend’s appearance? Could they too busy chatting with staff to engage others? Could they not be aware of how hurtful their dog’s responses were, as well as the owners?
Could they be totally oblivious to the effect they left with this one human who desperately needed the touch and affection of a dog while spending months away from her own?
Could they not understand why they were there – to provide comfort and care to those they meet, staff, patients, family members, everyone.
This is why Delta Pet Partners wants to see how both the handler and animal interact with clients. This is why role playing is part of the Evaluation. Does the dog truly want to be there? Is the dog people-centric. Does the dog always turn to his name and be inquisitive towards any new experience. Does the handler want to engage with all sorts of people in all sorts of situations.
If my friend had these dramatic reactions to these few dogs and handlers, imagine someone with no dog knowledge, someone with lesser faculties, someone in a more critical point in their life, someone with raw emotions bubbling over?
It is enough that the dog is “safe?” Not to become a Pet Partner therapy team and certainly not enough to become a Love Dog.