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The healing power of therapy dogs

Why does a normally silent elderly resident now converse with the nursing home staff? What makes a patient smile during a chemotherapy treatment? How can a timid student read calmly in front of classmates? What calms an agitated psychiatric patient? How can an exhausted first responder decompress after an emotionally-draining search and recovery mission? The common thread between these different scenarios is the calming presence of therapy dogs.

Therapy dogs have made a difference in the lives of nursing home and hospice residents, patients in hospital settings, children and adults with disabilities and people in need of an emotional release from stress. These remarkable dogs sense people's needs during visitations made by volunteer dog and handler teams. Interaction with therapy dogs provides tactile, visual, auditory and emotional stimulation. The dogs also stimulate communication that may begin with a person saying "hi" when greeting the dog, to reminiscing with the handler about a beloved dog that graced their life, and eventually conversing with other people within their environment. Regularly scheduled therapy dog visits stimulate anticipation, excitement, and feelings of optimism.

The therapy dog movement has spread rapidly throughout the U.S. and the world. Several organizations have been formed that evaluate, train, regulate and register therapy dog and handler teams serving in a variety of settings. National organizations like Pet Partners (formerly known as the Delta Society) and Therapy Dogs International have regional chapters throughout the country. At the more local level, Pets on Wheels has a Maryland chapter. Keystone Pet Enhanced Therapy Services (KPETS) provides training workshops in central Pennsylvania and in Westminster (in collaboration with Carroll Kennel Club).

These organizations have similar requirements for therapy dog candidates: be friendly with other dogs (several therapy dogs may be present during visitations at the same facilities), be at least 1 year old, have lived with the owner for at least 6 months, consistently perform basic obedience skills, remain calm when being handled (petted, grabbed, hugged, etc.) by different people and tolerate the sights, smells sounds and equipment found in nursing home and hospital settings (wheelchairs, walkers, I-V poles, etc.).

In addition, a health certificate must be completed annually by a veterinarian to confirm that the dog has all current inoculations, is healthy and free of internal and external parasites. This is required for insurance coverage from therapy dog organizations. The organizations will have lists of facilities seeking dog and handler teams for visitations and may require documented monthly visits. Usually ID cards for handlers and tags worn by the dogs (issued by the therapy dog organization) must be worn during every visitation. Dogs must be bathed prior to all visitations because they may be interacting with people who have weakened immune systems.

The settings for therapy dog and handler team visitations are varied. Because dogs don't criticize oral reading errors, some schools and libraries welcome "reader" dogs to help children develop confidence with their reading skills.

Nursing homes can be lonely for residents because relatives don't come to visit regularly, but when the volunteer therapy dog-handler teams visit, the Pets on Wheels slogan "Help lick loneliness" becomes a reality.

Some hospitals and assisted living centers permit dogs to curl up or stretch out on the beds of patients to provide warmth, comfort, company, and bring smiles. Some therapy dogs provide entertainment by demonstrating tricks and obedience skills or wear costumes for different holidays or occasions like sporting events. Immediately after that horrific day of 9/11, therapy dog teams assembled from all over the U.S. to provide comfort to the survivors, their families and first responders. This has resulted in the development of therapy dog programs that specialize in comforting victims and first responders following disasters.

Recently the American Kennel Club has started to issue Therapy Dog titles to purebreds and mixed breeds that: are certified/registered by an AKC recognized therapy dog organization; perform a minimum of 50 visits; are registered (for purebred dogs) or listed (Purebred Alternative Listing program for unregistered purebred dogs or AKC Canine Partners Program for mixed breeds).

If you think your dog has the "right stuff" and you are willing to volunteer your time and willingness to bring quality into the lives of others, consider enrolling into a therapy dog training program.

The intrinsic reward of sharing your dog's healing powers could be priceless.

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