Thursday, August 6, 2009

Volunteering with your dog - Pet Therapy

Many member of the DogsLifeKC pack as well as its supporters are active in the field of "therapy dogs."

When we're "Hitting the Town with our Hounds" that topic frequently comes up and often people ask how they and their dogs could participate as therapy dogs. So, here is the scoop!

***** What is a therapy dog?

In the most basic of terms, a therapy dog is a highly trained volunteer.

The dog is trained to provide affection and comfort to people in retirement homes, hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, schools, detentions centers and libraries. Often the people they visit have physical impairments, learning difficulties or are under extreme stress.

***** What does a therapy dog do?
A lot depends on the size of the dog and where it visits.

A therapy dog's job is to allow strangers to pet it and to enjoy that contact. Children in particular enjoy hugging animals; adults usually enjoy simply petting the dog or touching it and talking.

At a hospital, a dog might need to lay next to someone on a bed or simply sit in a chair next to a person while being petted.

At a nursing home, a dog may go from room-to-room to say hello and if it is small enough, it can sit in someone's lap while being petted.

At a school or library, a dog will lay down next to a child and listen to the child read aloud.

At other facilities, the dogs may perform tricks, play ball and be groomed or simply listen to somebody's secrets.

***** Does a therapy dog really provide help?

Yes. There are many univierisities, organizations, including the Delta Society, and hospitals that have proven repeatedly through scientific investigations that therapy dogs can provide mental and physical benefits to the people that they visit and interact with.

  • Improve fine motor skills
    Improve standing equilibrioceptions (AKA balance)
  • Lower blood pressure,
  • Lower risk for stroke or heartattack
  • Decrease depression.


  • A 2007 study found that animal-assisted therapy is associated with moderate effect sizes in improving outcomes in autism spectrum symptoms, medical difficulties, behavioral problems, and emotional well-being.
  • Increase verbal interactions between group members.
  • Increase attention skills (i.e., paying attention, staying on task).
  • Develop leisure/recreation skills.
  • Increase self-esteem
  • Reduce anxiety
  • Reduce loneliness.


  • Increase vocabulary
  • Aid in long- or short-term memory
  • Improve knowledge of concepts, such as size, color, etc.


  • Improve willingness to be involved in a group activity.
  • Improve interactions with others.
  • Improve interactions with staff.

***** What types of dogs make good therapy dogs?

Therapy dogs come in all shapes, sizes and breeds, including limited editions breeds (also known as mixed breeds).

The most important characteristic of a therapy dog is its temperament. A good therapy dog must be friendly, patient, confident, and gentle. They must enjoy human contact and be content to be petted and handled, sometimes clumsily.

***** Do I have to take a test?

Yes. All organizations that provide therapy dog certifications require testing of the dogs and humans as a team.

Tests are similar to a basic obedience test or the equivalent of the AKC's Canine Good Citizen test. Can the dog walk on lead without pulling? Can you meet a friendly stranger without the dog jumping on them? Does the dog know sit and down? Can the dog do a 1-minute down stay?

These tests, while different with each organization, ensure that a dog can handle sudden loud or strange noises, can walk on assorted unfamiliar surfaces comfortably, and is not frightened by people with canes, wheelchairs, or unusual styles of walking or moving.

The human part of the team is also generally required to take a basic open book test on visiting procedures.

***** If we pass the test, does that mean my dog can go everywhere with me including stores and restaurants?

Therapy dogs are not service dogs and do not have the same rights.

Service dogs directly assist humans, and have a legal right to accompany their owners in most areas. In the United States, service dogs are legally protected at the federal level by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Therapy dogs do not provide direct assistance and are not mentioned in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

***** Where can my dog and I visit?

Where you and your dog visit depends on where you're located, what interests you, the time of day that you're able to volunteer, etc. And, where you AND your dog are most comfortable.

Places that are visited in the Kansas City area:
  • Schools
  • Alternative Schools
  • Head Start programs
  • Libraries
  • Women's Shelters
  • Hospitals
  • Group homes
  • Hospices
  • Nursing homes
  • Retirement communities
  • Rehabilitation facilities
  • Detention centers
  • Menal health facilities
  • and many more.
***** What will my dog and I do on a visit?

That depends on you, your dog and the place you visit.

If you're part of a READ program, you and your dog will go to a school or library on a regular basis. Kids will read aloud to the dog while you and the dog listen.

At a nursing home, you might visit certain residents that are bed ridden to "say Hello" and chat for awhile about your dog, the weather, etc. Then, you go out in to an activities room to "say Hello" and then have your dog play ball or do tricks.

Truly, all of it is dependent upon you, your dog and the facility.

***** How do I get involved?

There are two animal therapy programs in the metropolitan area: Pets for Life and Mo-Kan Pet Partners which is affiliated with the Delta Society out of Washington state.

Both organizations provide certification and will assist you in getting started as well as setting up visits.

In my humble opinion, which is simply my opinion, Quincy and I have been certfied through both groups and done visits for both. But, the groups are different.

Pets for Life has more visits available throughout the metropolitan area and at different times of day which allows more flexibility for those that work.

Mo-Kan Pet Partners is a more intensive test and is geared more toward assisting facilities in goal-based animal-assisted therapy. When working in this type of pet therapy, the visits are more likely to be during the day.

***** Good luck and happy volunteering!

Monday, August 3, 2009

How to find a dog trainer to help you and your dog.

Since many of the Dogs Life KC pack is out "Hitting the Town with our Hounds," we're often how we got our dogs to behave like they do.

"We train them."

When asked who trained them, the answer is the same.

"We train them."

One of the most popular responses by far then is: "How long did you have to take him to obedience school to act like that?"

My favorite answer is, "He's 7 years old and we still go to school once a week."

The training level I want from my dogs is different than the average person that we meet on the street. And, I can easily say that for each of the Dogs Life KC pack members. Our dogs are active as service dogs, therapy dogs, show dogs, search and rescue dogs, etc. That means many hours are put in "teaching" the dogs each and every week.

So, if the person is still talking to me after I say that I have been taking my dog to obedience school for his entire life, then he or she will ask "Can you recommend a dog trainer to help me?"

That is a sticky wicket. Recommending a dog trainer is akin to recommending a church. You really don't want to offend someone accidentally.

I used to recommend different trainers in the area. But, after a bit, I've learned it is safer to ask:
  • What are you REALLY wanting from your dog?

  • How much effort are you willing to put in to the task?

  • How far are you willing to drive?
From those questions, I'll get a feel for what the person truly wants and maybe from that, I'll be able to recommend a few trainers that are agreeable with the goals and driving distance.

Some people laugh at those questions. But, they're actually quite serious when you think about them.

1) If someone is wanting their 5 month old Golden Retriever to act like my 7-year old Newfoundland within two months, that is just not going to happen without a lot of time and work.

2) If a person has a 9-year old Labrador/Great Dane mix that has always been food aggressive but they now have a toddler that likes to annoy the dog chances are they want the issue fixed NOW if not yesterday. But, they'll have to work and be diligent.

3) And, yes, travel time has to be taken in to consideration. For example, I personally have no issues driving from Lenexa to Lawrence for a dog class once a week. But, I enjoy the quiet time with my dog and it gives me a chance to catch up on phone calls. Other people balk at that time though.

Finding a dog trainer that fits you, your needs and your dog is a quest. The quest is similar to looking for a new pair of casual shoes. What looks good on the surface may not fit well or it may fit but doesn't look great with the majority of outfits owned.

So, before you go out looking for a trainer, decide what training style fits your personality.

I've met dog people who are hard core believers that a dog should never be punished or forced to do a thing. We as humans should "shape" their behaviors and never "lure" them or force them by putting our hands on them.

Are you a fan or foe of Cesar Millan - The Dog Whisperer guy on TV?

Are you open to the idea of using a clicker? This is a method similar to dolphin or whale training at Sea World.

I've even heard people tell me that their dog works purely because of love. Treats and praise are not necessary because their love is strong.
With all of this...I can honestly say I believe that IF you pick a method of training that you believe in 100% and you use that method 100%, the odds are good that eventually your dog will be trained.

True, your dog may not be originally aligned for that method. But, if you stick with it then eventually you'll get some compliance and training will have results.

How do you pick a trainer for you and your dog?

Watch a class or two.

Watch the trainer in a couple of classes. Then answer these questions:

  • Is the class too big for the instructor?
  • Does the instructor allow questions?
  • Does the instructor give attention to those needing it?
  • Are the students and dogs comfortable in the class?
  • Are the dogs excited to see the trainer?

What is the trainer's background and experience in dogs?

Ask the trainer about his/her background in dogs and what it is they like to do in regards to training. If the trainer just has a "pet dog" at home then maybe this person doesn't have the experience you personally need.

You must be comfortable with the person's experience because this means the person is aligned to a certain method or style of training.

What equipment is the trainer and students using on their dogs?
flat or buckle collars?
Head halters?
Pinch collars?

Are you comfortable with the equipment the trainer is using? If not, then look to a different class.

What is your gut reaction?
Is this a trainer you can work with? If you hesitate in your answer then move on. There is a trainer out there for everyone.

So then...what is in my personal dog training toolbox? I have a little bit of everything.

I've taken well over 1000 hours of dog training classes in a variey of subjects:
  • puppy kindergarten
  • canine good citizen
  • basic home obedience
  • novice
  • advanced
  • compeition obedience
  • therapy dog training
  • head collar training
  • e-collar training
  • agility
  • off-leash
  • rally-obedience
  • basic clicker training
  • trick training
  • basic scent work
  • advanced scent work
  • tracking
  • human remains detection
  • collapsed structure search
  • water searches
  • basic avalanche work
  • air-scent
  • reading calming signals from dogs
  • canine body language
  • form follows function in canine structure
  • and the list goes on, and on, and on
But, here is the kicker, I love this stuff. I find it immensely exciting and I'll go to classes that I don't always a strong interest in because I want to hear the trainer and observe the dogs. I love watching the dogs learn, and think. I think it is exciting to watch the light bulbs go on for the dogs and I sincerely believe that the dogs have a great time learning things and being able to conquer new tasks.

From all of those classes, I have a fairly interesting tool box. I don't conform 100% to any method of training. I use a variety of methods and skills dependent upon the dog and situation presented.