Sometimes we forget that even the most experienced therapy dog has “first” visits. When we begin a new assignment, it’s important to remember that for the dog it is a first time visiting there. The smells and sounds are different, the people are different, and the building and area to potty is different.
It is tempting to become complacent and so sure of our animals that we forget they need that extra time to become familiar with any new environment. Yes they may have been to a memory care or hospital or school before, but not this one. I always recommend when beginning a new assignment or participating in a new program or event that the teams arrive half an hour early to become accustomed to the new setting. Walk your dog around, let him smell and potty. See that he is happy and ready to begin something new.
When a newly graduated Love Dog team begins their therapy career I go with them without my own dog on several visits. When an experienced team begins a new assignment, we go back to this model and I accompany them on their “first” visit or several. This allows us to see if there are any pitfalls or challenges for both handler and animal.
We watch closely for any stress signals in our animals or particular signs of happiness and comfort and calmness and joy.
Sometimes we discover that while the handler may want to visit in a hospital or work with children in a reading program, the dog is just not that into it. We give it a fair trial but the dog has to want this particular kind of population and their voice always overrides the handler. Some dogs just need a little time to become familiar with a new assignment, but others are very obvious with their discomfort and stress signals. That determines if the match is a good fit or not.
One of our Love Dog teams has been volunteering for over four years now. They worked at a broad range of environments and with several populations. They always worked once weekly and thoroughly enjoyed the activity. The dog (and handler!) was beloved wherever they visited.
They just began a new assignment in a very different setting and I accompanied them on their first visit. It was as if they had been going to this facility forever. This beautiful dog settled right in and was so calm and relaxed. She understood this was not like other places she had been. The people were very different. Perhaps they were not as calm or steady or aware of things around them. But the dog knew exactly what to do. It was quickly determined this would be a wonderful weekly assignment for them and the dog was the happiest I had ever seen her. She understood how very special this place was the she really listened to the people she met. She knew they needed her so much.
The key to having successful new “first” visits is to prepare thoroughly and being open to taking your time.
Being open to listening to your dog and reading her signals.
Being open to the possibility that it may not be a good fit but worth the try.
Being open to knowing when your dog has found a new “home” and looking forward to many future visits together.