A Therapy Dog is a dog that is evaluated, certified and trained by an accredited Therapy Dog organization. Therapy dogs provide comfort, affection, cheer and support to people in such places as hospitals, retirement/nursing homes, juvenile hall facilities, schools and in stressful situations. Therapy dogs and their owners/handlers volunteer their time to make these visits.
The most important characteristic of a good therapy dog is its temperament. A good therapy dog must be friendly, confident, patient, gentle, enjoy human contact, be content to be petted, handled and hugged, sometimes clumsily, and to allow unfamiliar people to make physical contact with it. Sometimes the dogs might perform small tricks or demonstrate tasks such as sitting on command.
Therapy dogs are not service or assistance dogs. Service and assistant dogs directly assist humans, usually their owner/handler and have a legal right to accompany their owners in most areas. Therapy dogs do not provide direct assistance. Institutions may invite, limit, or prohibit access to therapy dogs.
In the San Francisco Bay Area certifying organizations are Therapy Dog Incorporated (http://www.therapydogs.com/ ) Therapy Dog International (http://www.tdi-dog.org/ ) and Pet Partners (formerly the Delta Society)( http://www.deltasociety.org/ ). Also available is Furry Friends Pet Assisted Therapy Services ( http://www.furryfriends.org/ )with their own Certified Animal Behaviorist, (Julie Bond for Furry Friends), to evaluate and certify new dogs and their owners. Furry Friends does not require certification by another organization such as those listed above. Furry Friends has over 70 sites that they work with. Volunteers can pick the site or sites they wish to visit. This is an excellent organization to begin your therapy dog work with.
The highlights and personal rewards of working as a therapy dog team, besides the close bonding developed between the handler and dog, are when you can see how much the presence of your dog enhanced, brightened and helped the people you are visiting. During a visit PWD therapy dogs can break down emotional barriers, bringing happiness, relaxation and stress release to the people they are visiting.
Personally, one of the special moments I remember is during a visit to Santa Clara County Juvenile Hall. A big, tall, threatening looking and tough acting young man, walked over to my PWD, Norman, sat down and started hugging and kissing him. It was the last thing I expected to see this young man do and it was so wonderful to see how a dog visit could allow this young man to express emotions that he must usually kept hidden.
All of the PWD therapy dog teams have special stories and memories of magic moments when their therapy dog visit made a huge impact on the person and/or facility they were visiting. I am also sure that all of us also have a few funny stories of how the crazy antics and fun personalities of our PWDs have brought smiles and laughter to the people being visited.