Solo is a working dog. A Cardigan Welsh Corgi, he accompanies me to my office in Murdo, South Dakota, on a regular basis. There he greets workers and visitors, provides stress breaks, and generally keeps everyone from being too serious.
Solo’s most important work, though, is performed outside the office. Solo is a therapy dog and visits retirees and the chronically ill in the local nursing home. He has sat at the foot of a man who reminisced about the great herding dogs he saw as a boy growing up on a cattle ranch. He has sat on beds and been hugged repeatedly. As a dog with short legs, he’s been lifted up for men in wheelchairs to pet him and tell him what a nice boy he is. A woman who had withdrawn into herself, barely speaking to anyone, told him at great length about her day and what she watched on television. He has also been quite disappointed that he was not allowed to accept some of the treats offered, including the hamburger one woman had slid off her plate into a napkin and then tried to feed him, all in one piece! He enjoys these people and they enjoy him.
That’s not to say a visit is all fun. Solo’s least favorite part: the bath the night before. I brush his teeth and clip and grind his nails so they do not snag or scratch. And he gets brushed just beforehand, although as anyone with a Corgi knows (and as noted by the nursing home activities director with a dismayed look), it’s impossible to stop him from shedding entirely.
Therapy dogs provide a valuable service. Many people consider their pets a valued member of the family. Studies support what every pet owner already knows: The calming presence of a friendly animal is invaluable, and stroking or interacting with a pet can be comforting beyond measure. Yet at times of illness or great stress, when people most need to be surrounded by the familiar, they are left without the comfort of their pets.
Therapy dogs help fill this gap for retirees forced to give up their pets to move into the nursing home, for seriously ill patients worried about whether their animals are being well cared for, and for those who never had a pet of their own but who relish that special comfort of a dog’s unconditional acceptance. There are other ways in which therapy dogs serve. Some visit disaster areas to allow relief workers a few minutes of seeming normality amid chaos. Others visit schools to help children learn how to react to dogs and provide a non-judgmental listener to children working to overcome stuttering, reading disabilities, and other challenges.
Anyone thinking about volunteering his or her dog as a therapy dog would be well served to register with a therapy dog organization. Solo is registered with Therapy Dogs International, one of several registries for therapy dogs.
There are several benefits to registering with a therapy organization. A major benefit (and for lawyers, probably high on the list) is that the organization provides liability insurance to cover the dog’s visits. Such organizations also provide introductory literature to nursing homes, hospitals, schools, and other facilities; maintain a network of places requesting visits; and offer advice and backup to the human part of a therapy dog team.
Each therapy dog organization has different requirements for registration. In all cases, though, the requirements concentrate on the suitability of the dog for therapy work. Therapy dogs must be adaptable, even-tempered, friendly, and empathetic. Solo first had to pass a temperament test, which included exposure to a woman in a wheelchair; a man who lurched up to him while wielding a cane in a somewhat haphazard manner; children who ran around shrieking; grooming by a stranger; separation from familiar people and immersion into a group of unfamiliar people; and—most difficult of all for him—walking by and ignoring treats scattered on the floor (just consider arthritic hands fumbling with and dropping medication). Once the dog has passed the temperament test, the dog must pass an annual physical exam to verify freedom from parasites and confirmation of all appropriate vaccinations.
Not every dog can be a therapy dog. They go into new environments; are exposed to many different people, some of whom fear dogs or who—whether because of ill health, dementia, or other reasons—are just hostile; and interact with people who may become very emotional for reasons mysterious to the dog.
It can also be challenging for the handler. I need to watch for signs that Solo may be getting too much stress or that a patient really doesn’t like dogs but is too polite to say so; I then must be able to end the visit without causing even more stress or upset to the dog or the patient. It is, however, extremely rewarding, and I highly recommend it.