by Kathryn Spofford, Past President, Friends of Hermon Dog Park
Four years ago, my dog Spencer went on his first visit as a therapy dog. Spencer makes his rounds to patients at different facilities once a week. Our patients, and I say “our” because in order for Spencer to volunteer his time, I have to volunteer mine too; have been touched by Spencer’s kindness, his spirit to light up a room with his smile, and his gentleness to comfort the bed-ridden, or disabled. Spencer is welcomed at local Hospice facilities by patients who would like a diversion from their medical woes. The bond between humans and dogs affects the emotional health of humans, and therapy dogs help combat loneliness.
One of the first things we ask when entering a patient’s room is, “Did you have a dog of your own?” it is a great conversation piece and is usually met with smiles. Exposure to therapy dogs allows the patient to feel needed and wanted at a time in their life when death is evident. While working with a hospice program, dogs learn to be able to sense the process an individual goes through with death. Signs may include a change in breathing, restlessness or possible disorientation. In addition to the patient, dogs and handlers often have the ability to comfort family members and their children. Being part of a hospice team is a powerful and inspirational experience for a therapy dog member.
When Spencer puts on his therapy dog bandana and walks along the corridors in the hospital, he understands that he is a special working dog. Spencer understands that he is entering a person’s life every time we enter a new patient’s room. We bring an extra blanket into patient’s rooms for Spencer to lay on, if the patient is unable to get out of bed for their visit. Spencer will also sit right next to a patient in a wheelchair for petting. Sometimes after a long visit Spencer will perform a few tricks to liven up the room. Being a therapy dog is something Spencer was born to do, and he gets great satisfaction from visiting the patients!
A therapy dog, not to be mistaken with a service dog, must be certified through the organization Therapy Dogs International (TDI), founded in 1976. To join TDI, you and your dog must first pass a TDI Evaluation given by a certified TDI Evaluator, and then register with the organization. The dog must complete 15 steps without assistance from treats. Other requirements include that dogs must be a minimum of one year old, they must pass health requirements, and the handler must be of good character.
Potential applicants are not required to take any Therapy Dog classes, but there is a minimum $10.00 testing fee. Exposure to distractions and medical equipment are two of the most important requirements. If your dog accepts a friendly stranger, is okay walking through a crowd and obeys basic commands, your dogs could join the more than 30,000 other therapy dogs working in hospitals, nursing homes and physical-therapy programs. TDI also offers a Children Reading to Dogs program, called “Tail Waggin’ Tutors,” for those interested, the same requirements apply. For more information visit their website: www.tdi-dog.org