Your Dog Can Provide Support as a Therapy Animal

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Zoe, my miniature schnauzer, currently is snoring on a pillow nearby on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Now 15 years of age, Zoe still exhibits the calmness and the sweet disposition that was always welcome at Mom's nursing home.  I still can picture how Zoe would sit in Mom's lap as I would push Mom's wheelchair down the hallway. As residents saw Zoe, they'd come up to pet her and to offer a few morsels from their dinner trays. Although untrained, Zoe's presence always had a positive impact on Mom and others at the facility.

    Turns out Zoe's not alone in being a good influence. Therapy pets can make a different for loved ones with Alzheimer's.  A year ago Eric Hall, CEO of Alzheimer's Foundation of America, wrote a sharepost about the increasing prevalence of therapy dogs in nursing homes and dementia facilities. So what exactly are therapy animals?

    Add This Infographic to Your Website or Blog With This Code:

    According to Delta Society, "Therapy Animals are not legally defined by federal law, but some states have laws defining therapy animals. They provide people with contact to animals, but are not limited to working with people who have disabilities. They are usually the personal pets of their handlers, and work with their handlers to provide services to others. Federal laws have no provisions for people to be accompanied by therapy animals in places of public accommodation that have ‘no pets' policies. Therapy animals usually are not service animals."

    To facilitate the opportunity for more animals to provide these types of services, Delta Society offers a Pet Partners program which provides training and screening of volunteers and their pets for visiting animal programs in nursing homes, hospitals and rehabilitation centers (as well as schools and other facilities). According to the Delta Society's website, "The Pet Partners program was established in 1990 to ensure that ‘both ends of the leash,' people as well as animals, were well-prepared to participate in animal-assisted activity and animal-assisted therapy programs. Pet Partners is the only national registry that requires volunteer training and screening of animal-handler teams."


    There are four steps to becoming a registered Pet Partners team. These are:

    Step 1: Take a training course which covers skills needed to take an animal into a health or education facility safely.  This course is presented as a 12-hour hands-on course in face-to-face training. There's also a home study course for those who cannot attend a workshop. Course topics include:  how to tell if both you and your animal are a good fit for Pet Partners; preparing yourself and your animal for visits; identifying and decreasing stress in your animal; animal health and safety; special needs of specific client groups; how to interact with different types of people; facility health and safety codes; and patient confidentiality.

    Step 2: The animal must pass a general physical exam and be free from internal and external parasites. All immunizations (including rabies) must be up-to-date.

  • Step 3: The animal and handler must be evaluation as a team. This includes a Pet Partners Skills Test, which determines whether the animal can be controlled by the handler and can follow basic commands. The handler will be assessed on how well he/she interacts with the evaluation team, the animal and the environment. The Pet Partners Aptitude Test simulates conditions that may be encountered during a visit. This test determines the most appropriate environment for the handler and animal to visit.

    Add This Infographic to Your Website or Blog With This Code:

    Step 4: Complete a registration packet. Benefits of becoming a registered Pet Partners team include primary liability insurance, identification badge for the handler and collar tag for the animal, and referral to facilities searing for Pet Partners teams.

    Not all dogs have the right stuff to serve in this capacity. Take, for instance, my new dog, Noel. Almost three years old, this miniature schnauzer mix is a bundle of energy and nerves, letting little "ruffs" under her breath as she watches the goings on in my backyard.  When people enter my house, Noel barks up a storm as a greeting and starts jumping on them, eager to welcome them.  (Yes, I'm working on training her to stop these bad habits, but she's pretty stubborn.) Based on these behaviors, I know that Noel is too high strung to be a therapy dog in a nursing home and definitely would not be calming to a person with Alzheimer's. But then, again, there's always my dad's dog, Austin. Now, he would be a really good therapy dog.


Published On: November 10, 2009