Matching the right dog and handler with the right client is critical to the success of animal assisted therapy. Therapy dogs are not interchangeable.
One of the Love Dogs’ clients, Julian, has now worked with eighteen different dogs over almost two years. Each dog has brought something unique to the table and taught Julian something different.
Another client of ours has worked with over ten dog teams and can remember something special about each and every dog.
And some clients only work with one dog but keep expanding what they do with the dog.
When we get a new assignment or request for a therapy team, there are many questions I pose. It is not enough to put out the request to anyone on the team who may have the time or live nearby.
It is even not enough to have a team that is interested, if the dog, or human, is not the right fit.
We need to understand the clients’ needs and skill set first. Is this particular client afraid of dogs, has that client had a bad experience with a dog, what kind of dog? Is this client in need of a super calm dog to begin with and build up to more energetic dogs. Is this a client who would do best with a smaller dog or a larger one? A dog who can do many commands or a dog that will lie steady for an hour and just be?
Is the facility one where there is a great deal of noise and distractions for the dog? Is it a facility where a great deal of walking on smooth surfaces is required? Is it a facility where many things are happening in the same room and great concentration is required?
Is the client a child or young adult or older person? Is the client able bodied or challenged? Are the tasks occupational, physical, speech or other?
Is the human therapist experienced working with dogs? Is it necessary for the dog handler to create the protocol for the sessions or is the therapist knowledgeable enough to do this on their own? Or can this truly be a team effort, which is the way we prefer to work.
Assigning the wrong dog for the task could set someone back weeks or even months in their therapy. And it could frustrate the handler and dog and create a stressful atmosphere for everyone.
For instance Boise works weekly with the same little girl on her physical and occupational therapy. They have found a wonderful use of the Pet Partner vest. The child stands up from a sitting position with the aid of her therapist and leans on the large Golden Retriever with one hand. Then with the other she balances and puts puzzle pieces or other toys in the vest pockets. Then she retrieves the objects and dresses her Princess doll or makes a puzzle etc. She opens the zippers of the vest and closes them. Then she uses the dog for balance to sit back down. Then they take a walk together.
This is the perfect example of handler, dog, therapists and child working together as a team. The joy in the room is palpable as the child struggles each time to lift herself up and perform the required tasks, all the while the dog is calm, steady, and happy.
Another child had a fear of dogs and now has a large dog in the family. He is learning to not only be with dogs but understand how they behave and know that he can control his distance and use his words to communicate they are too close.
We have seen time after time that when the right match is made, magic happens. Having a lead coordinator for the animal therapy program is great because that one person knows all the handlers and animals well and can assist in the matchmaking process.
And no one’s feelings are hurt if an assignment isn’t for them – the goal is always what is best for the client and how to move the process forward.