I have been working the past couple of months to get Zara certified as a therapy dog. This will allow us to volunteer at nursing homes, hospitals, schools, or other places where people may benefit from interacting with dogs.
The first step in this process was getting her Canine Good Citizen certification, which we achieved this summer. A few weeks later, we also got the Canine Good Citizen Advanced (CGCA) title when the AKC hosted an event in Raleigh.
I signed up for a therapy dog training class with Topline K9 Solutions that started in September. Taking a class is not required to become a therapy dog but I figured it would be helpful. We worked on a lot of things that we worked on in the Public Manners class – loose leash walking, sit, down, stay, and behaving around other dogs. Zara and I will continue to work on the loose leash walking – I think it will always be a challenge for us – but she has improved.
The instructors also had us practice “rough petting” of the dogs and hugs, since patients or kids that you’re visiting may not always pet the dog in a gentle way or they may be somewhat uncoordinated or have jerky movements. Thankfully, Zara does not mind hugs. She sometimes hugs us!
We also spent a lot of time getting the dogs accustomed to crutches, a walker, and a wheelchair. Zara didn’t mind the walker or the wheelchair too much but she was really freaked out by the crutches at first! I don’t think that she’s seen crutches before and she didn’t like the noise they made on the floor. But after laying them down flat on the ground, letting her sniff them, and praising her, she was less afraid.
The instructors talked a lot about how to interact with the patients, how to be respectful, and how to answer certain questions you might get. I think it’s easy to focus a lot of energy on training your dog, but as the handler, you are doing a lot of interacting with the patient as well.
I thought Zara did really well in the class. She was somewhat antsy the first class, but I think that was because I didn’t feed her dinner beforehand. Before the following classes, I made sure to feed her ahead of time, and she laid down on the towel I had brought and chilled out when we weren’t doing active things.
Our class was a mix of dog breeds and ages. There were several small dogs – a Havanese, a Bichon Frise, and a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel, as well as larger dogs – a labradoodle and a bulldog or bulldog mix. They ranged in age from 8 months to 9 years old. Most organizations will take therapy dogs of any breed or age, as long as they are healthy, friendly around people and other dogs, and obedient.
We had our final therapy dog training class last week. The next step is for us to get certified through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. This will involve an obedience/temperament test and three visits to a care facility so the evaluator can see how Zara and I interact with people in a real situation. Hopefully we will pass so we can start volunteering soon!