You and your dog would make a GREAT therapy team!

Have you ever heard those words and wondered exactly what they meant? D’Ari and I started hearing those comments two years ago from fellow obedience trainers who were also therapy teams. At the time, I had family obligations and needed to pick and choose what I sports/events I would participate in with my dog. Little did I know that we were already performing these types of behaviors when we would go visit my dad in a nursing home.

Fast forward 2 years. COVID is now in the picture, and my work reduced me to part time. It’s a perfect time to look into therapy work! Lucky for me, my obedience club was holding classes for new teams and refresher classes for those who wanted to brush up on their skills after the “lack” of in person visits due to COVID.

After speaking to the teacher about my current qualifications, she told me about North Star Therapy Animals which is a local chapter in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. They don’t do certifications but are a member of the Pet Partner organization. So I went home, registered on the Pet Partners website, and enrolled in the therapy animal online course.

I took the online course, studied for the test, and passed! I was ready for my in person class. The most important thing I learned is that you are truly a TEAM. Where one part of you starts, the other ends; where one part of you ends, the other begins. I don’t think many people truly consider what it takes to become a therapy team.

First, you need to have a well-trained obedience dog. Many people probably think that would be obvious, but an evaluator I spoke with said you would be surprised how many people come in with untrained or unreliable dogs to try and pass the evaluation. AKC recommends that potential therapy teams pass the Canine Good Citizen test before applying to become a therapy team.

Second, the handler needs to have excellent people skills. What? This isn’t just about my animal that people will get to cuddle? Actually, the handler should be prepared to talk to many different kinds of people depending on where you take your therapy animal. Interactions can be anything from 1st graders reading to your dog, helping stressed out high school or college students, nurses, or doctors at a hospital, to a nursing home or memory care unit, and there are many other opportunities. As a hander, you need to remember that everyone needs your full attention and focus for the interaction you have with them. Keep in mind that you should tailor the visit to their needs and wants.

D’Ari and I were excited for our in-person class. We spent lots of time role playing many different situations, such as walking through a large crowd, meeting groups of people, and how to facilitate petting so your animal doesn’t get overwhelmed. Other items we practiced were reactions to loud noises, grooming, and having strangers touch your dog all over.

After our class, we were ready for the in-person evaluation. My teacher suggested that we should try for the Complex rating of Pet Partners. She felt that between D’Ari’s great obedience and calm nature, and my experience with various meet the breeds and nursing home visits with my father, we would be able to pass the evaluation.

We showed up at a building we had never been to before, with people we had never met as evaluators. Nerve-wracking to say the least! It felt like it took forever and I was so nervous. However, I remembed my role playing practice and tried to place myself in the situation, versus treating it like a test, and D’Ari performed wonderfully! We passed with a score of Complex!

We were granted our Therapy Team designation on August 19th, 2021. Since then we’ve had 8 therapy visits and will be starting a weekly Read With Me at a local elementary school, and visits to North Memorial Hospital to put a smile on ICU nurses’ faces.

I love to share my dog and her accomplishments. Doing therapy work fills with me pride that we can give someone a smile and perhaps make that “difference” for them. If you’ve ever considered it, I strongly encourage you to check it out. It really is rewarding.