I must get half a dozen calls a week asking if our animal therapy team can visit facilities. Everyone wants dogs around now.
In response to new requests I always explain that we are a small program and want to make sure we can commit to a facility or program and serve them as they deserve before agreeing to partner.
Then I ask to arrange for a site visit with one of my own dogs. I want to understand the environment and population and their needs. I want to determine if our teams can provide what they are looking for. And I want to decide if it is a good partner for the Love Dogs.
What makes a good partner?
- A great contact person that we can have open conversation with regarding schedules, needs, programming, problems.
- A clean inviting environment with welcoming staff
- The clients we see should be well cared for and the staff ratio a strong one
- The staff should understand what we do and why we are there and not view us as “in the way”
- The staff should understand our policies and procedures and not encourage us to do things we do not deem safe (“Let’s let the dogs run off leash” or “Oh, it’s ok for your big dog to on the beds.”)
- Preferably no “civilian” dogs running around on the premises. We have heard of dog fights in the hall scaring people and seen off leash untrained dogs eliminating in lobbies.
- And an environment where we can make a difference
- And we do want to know if other therapy teams go there so we can determine if we should be exclusive to ensure our standards throughout a facility.
However, some places are not interested in a site visit they just want dogs to start coming in, any dogs, any handlers. If I cannot go alone first to inspect a facility and chat with our primary contacts, we cannot take them on.
And if I visit and deem it not a positive environment for our teams, I can explain that at this time we are over-committed.
We are not interested in facilities that are not motivated in building a long-term relationship with us. We want to first make sure our animals will be happy, safe and comfortable. Then we want to know that the right match has been made, for both ends of the leash.
So by my going first and understanding exactly what the landscape of the assignment is, I can reach out to team members that I think would do best there.
Because of this demand now for what has become a popular trend, everyone just wants therapy dogs, and we see the requirements for many therapy organizations lessening. We see not just choke chains on therapy dogs but pinch/prong collars and even electronic bark/shock collars. We see metal leashes and no leashes. We see dogs barking throughout visits and pawing at people. We have even had one of our own team members experience a large therapy dog jump on her bed, with no covering under it, and walk onto her fresh incision wound while she was in hospital.
I must clarify these are not Pet Partner therapy teams. But many programs are feeling the pinch to provide more and more quantity versus quality. Their requirements have changed over the years to reflect this. Little or no training required and minimal testing has become the norm. And very few take into consideration the importance of the handler end of the leash and their preparation.
Many programs do not require coursework discussing issues like HIPPA laws and infection control, animal / canine communication and behavior, how to interact with differing populations and environments, how to understand your animal so fully you are a team at both ends of the leash – connected by silent language.
Pet Partners even requires re-testing of handler and animal every two years to ensure safety and that the team is still capable of doing the job. And that they are still enjoying the job. They take the exact same test they did the first time.
Very well intentioned volunteers often have not been given the tools they need to do beneficial, value-added, safe visits.
And most importantly, not every dog, no matter how well mannered or trained, is suitable or wants to be a therapy dog. They do not go to every person they meet regardless of their capabilities or smell or appearance. They do not have the stamina for hundreds of people greeting them or many little hands all over them or one-to-one concentrated focus.
I have heard people comment that after several years of visiting you would think their dog would “get it.” But the dog has to “get it” from the start or it is not a good job for that dog.
When a new trend comes along or grows in popularity the demand is overwhelming and that can lead to lessening of standards. Pet Partners has not lessened their requirements, is always staying ahead of the trend and looking to see what could be done better, taught more efficiently, tested more rigorously. So while it is tempting to cut corners, we cannot do that.
Being a therapy team is a privilege, obligation and responsibility. We are not just shoving animals at people. We have the mandate to protect our animal, ourselves, the clients we interact with and reputation of the effort.
So while it would be wonderful if the Love Dog therapy team could grow and grow and be everywhere, the reality is that our standards are high, our work is critical and our goal is to search for quality human-animal teams over quantity.