Almost every weekend, my dog Zoe and I go for a long run and, after a short rest, we head over to one of two healthcare facilities where we provide volunteer dog therapy for patients, staff, and visitors.
What is dog therapy?
The American Kennel Club defines therapy dogs as “dogs who go with their owners to volunteer in settings such as schools, hospitals, and nursing homes. From working with a child who is learning to read to visiting a senior in assisted living, therapy dogs and their owners work together as a team to improve the lives of other people.”
And Alliance of Therapy Dogs, with which Zoe and I are happily affiliated, describes the requirements for therapy dogs as any dog with the following qualities:
- Be at least one year of age
- Be good around other dogs
- Listen to their handlers
- Allow strangers to touch them all over
- Not jump on people when interacting
- Walk on a leash without pulling
- Not mind strange noises and smells
- Be calm for petting
- Not be afraid of people walking unsteadily
- Be current on all vaccines required by the local laws
- Have a negative fecal test every 12 months
- Be clean and well groomed
No breed or age restrictions apply. As long as the dog has these qualities and passes your organization’s tests, they can be registered (not certified) as a therapy dog.
What do you do as a dog therapy handler?
Zoe and I work in one hospital and one behavioral health ward, where we regularly attend a specific program for the patients. Zoe is such an energetic dog (even at 4 and a half years old!) she has to go on a long run before we volunteer. And, even then, she’s the most excited dog you’ll see in a hospital!
When we go to the hospital, we get a list of patients who have requested dog therapy and we go up to those rooms. On the way, anyone who wants to pet Zoe–staff, visitors, or other patients–can get a chance to give Zoe some love. She laps it up–getting petted is her favorite thing, after all. We spend as much time with each person as they need. I’ve even sat for 20 minutes with a patient and watched TV while she scratched behind Zoe’s ears.
At the behavioral ward, Zoe participates in recreational therapy. The patients get to pet her and play with her and the rec therapist will facilitate discussions as needed.
We also do holiday and themed events at the hospital, which usually involves dressing up for our shift.
That is an actually doggy Elsa-from-Frozen costume, by the way. I’m already working on my Anna costume so we can match next Halloween.
Is a therapy dog a service dog?
Not necessarily. A therapy dog is a pet that performs volunteer services during set hours but, outside of that volunteering, she is a regular pet dog or the handler’s service dog. Zoe has a special heart-shaped pendant that she wears and a badge from the healthcare company we volunteer with to show that she is working.
Which means I get to have this sweet girl with me all the time!
Why do you volunteer as a therapy dog handler?
When I was younger, I had an extremely positive experience with a therapy dog who helped me during a hard time. Ever since then, I have always wanted to have a dog with whom I could return the favor to others in need. Zoe happened to be a perfect fit–she’s interested in cuddling and getting petted by people more than playing with other dogs, and she’s friendly, energetic, and pretty much adorable. Even with all that, she settles down for patients who need her to be calm. In the hospital, most patients are in a bed, so she sits next to them and gets her ears scratched.
Zoe pours so much love and earnest desire to please and make people happy. We continue volunteering because of the way each face lights up when they see a dog coming in and because she is so happy doing it. When she’s visiting with someone, I’m just part of the scenery. It’s truly a privilege to be the hand at the end of the leash as my dog does all the work.
What is your best memory of volunteer?
We haven’t been volunteering for very long and I haven’t had my version of some of the more dramatic stories I’ve heard from others. However, I do have two memorable moments and I couldn’t decide which stood out to me more:
- Zoe got a patient to get out of bed and walk for the first time since surgery, after this person spent days refusing to move out of fear. I was so proud of my dog I may have teared up on the way home.
- Zoe and I visited a patient in the ICU who couldn’t move his neck. Zoe had just learned a new command and I wasn’t sure how she’d do in an unfamiliar environment. But, like a pro, when I gave the command, she reared up and put her two front paws on the bed so the patient could pet and see her. Side note: Zoe NEVER lets anyone pet her paws (she always moves it away) but, for this patient, she did. I don’t know why, but she did and it made all the difference for this person.
These moments are small but even little moments can feel big when you’re there, seeing it happen.
How does this inform your writing?
Dog therapy brings me to all kinds of people, many of whom are experiencing the most vulnerable and frightening days in their lives. It’s easy to learn to see people as complicated, complex individuals when you meet a racist in one room and a trans war vet in the next, or someone there for monitoring and someone there to die.
I have heard so many deeply personal stories in my 7 months that it’s hard not to be touched by the variety and depth of human experience. Zoe and I have the opportunity to volunteer on most holidays so for Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, we were able to go in and meet people otherwise alone but for the hospital staff. Everyone told us it was a big deal to them, but it was such a simple act for us.
I expect to give Zoe quite a few more good years of volunteering, which I’m positive is one her favorite things to do. I can only hope my future dogs allow me the same privilege.