Bedlingtons can be great therapy dogs!

therapy_1
I have had 3 Bedlingtons over the years, (one at a time) who have been therapy dogs. My first one, Holly, did very well, although she was a bit aloof at times. I think that I raised Andy differently, after knowing that I wanted him to be a therapy dog if possible. I learned a lot from Holly, and so Andy was socialized better as a puppy, and I think I prepared him better because I knew where I wanted him to go. And, I asked my breeder to select a puppy that she thought would make a good therapy dog. (Thanks, Dess!) Likewise, when I lost Andy, I went to the breeder asking for a people-dog and I was not disappointed. Ricky is my best one yet.  (Thanks, Christie and Jeannie!)

In case some of you are interested in knowing how to get started, I also want to mention that there are several national registries for therapy dogs, and the one major benefit they all have in common is that the handler/dog team is covered by their group liability policy when they are volunteering. In this day and age, it’s extremely important that folks not just take their “nice doggies” to visit in nursing homes, etc, without this insurance. While our homeowner’s policies *may* cover us in the event an accident happens, it’s not something one should assume.

I really like to see people take obedience classes first, (even though it isn’t strictly required) to ensure that you and your dog are communicating, and really working together as a team. While we might view this as an opportunity to take Fluffy to get some needed petting and attention, it’s much more than that to the dogs. Many of the folks we visit have issues with motor skills, or have issues with dementia. The dog needs to be trusting that the handler is going to take care of him, and he doesn’t have to be on guard to protect himself from the hand that is shaking or petting him strangely. The handler needs to be ready to catch the hand of the person with dementia who is about to pull the tassels off the dogs ear! (Yes, I’ve been in that situation!) So having good obedience skills helps tremendously as you prepare. Having a dog that is trusting his handler and isn’t bothered by strange happenings is a good start.

When Andy and Ricky were puppies, I would pet them with my whole hand covering their faces. They then were not surprised when people did this, and Ricky doesn’t shy away from that at all. Holly found it disagreeable. I’m still very careful when someone pets Ricky this way, but I’m confident he won’t snap at someone who might do that.

The national organizations don’t actually “certify” dogs for therapy work, even though they may use that terminology. They “register” teams that have been tested by their process. (Service dogs such as seeing eye dogs are highly trained and “certified”.) I personally am a member of Alliance of Therapy Dogs (formerly called Therapy Dogs, Inc), as their annual fees are low, and their testing process includes a suitability/control test, as well as 3 observed visits in medical settings; and it has the highest insurance coverage. Therapy Dogs, International (TDI) does a one-time test which is a modified CGC test, with no observations. Pet Partners has a much more involved process, with the handler taking training as well as the team, and the costs are higher. Each has its strengths and weaknesses.

In addition, there are local groups in various parts of the country that have their own liability insurance and have their own requirements for testing.
Having said this, if you should be interested in doing pet therapy, I’d suggest you find if there is a local group or club in your area, and join up with whatever organization (national or local) is available. The benefits of working within a group are extremely helpful as you get started. Why should you reinvent the wheel, if others have already paved the way?

I find that having a rare breed gives a lot of opportunity for education. I’d say maybe 10% of people will say “I know what that breed is… let me think a minute….. I saw them on the dog show…” or they actually know the name or a variation “That’s a Borthington, right?” And I’ve had people who are genuinely afraid of dogs, be willing to actually try to pet Ricky just because he is so cute and fluffy and soft. I’ve seen folks willing to pet Ricky but not willing to pet the big brown labradoodle or the boxer that we visit with, because they are scarier looking! And of course there are the typical comments that you all have heard, like “what kind of poodle cross is THAT?”

I started out training Holly to wear hats, because she really disliked having people pet her on the head. This worked well, and she tolerated the hats pretty well. Andy and Ricky didn’t like her girly hats, so I’ve had to look for boy-clothes. Now we have a whole closet full of t-shirts, jackets, and shorts! Ricky tolerates the hats, but since he doesn’t mind the head-petting, I don’t have him wear hats unless it’s an important holiday. He has a St. Pat’s hat that is very sparkly, and of course the Santa hat is important too. He has soft red booties and those are a huge hit too. I find that shirts and jackets get in the way of petting, so we avoid those sometimes too. But we find that being “dressed” helps with people who are a bit less alert, and gives us something to talk about. When he wears shorts, some people ask why he is wearing diapers! I tell them that Ricky thought it was warm enough for shorts. That is a truth in the warm weather, and a joke in the winter. Either way, they get a dose of “reality” which is valuable for folks who are often unaware of their surroundings.

I find that Ricky is quite confident when he meets new people, and there are times when he chooses to move away from people that he senses are not friendly. I am not sure what he is sensing, but I trust him that if he feels he is “done” even after maybe only 5 seconds of interaction, then he is done, and I don’t force him to stay. Ricky pulled away from a man recently, and the therapist who was with us said he had had radiation recently, and Ricky might have sensed that. Ricky might have also thought that this man wasn’t to be trusted and might hurt him.  The leash is a critical tool. Ricky is also quite confident and will put his front paws up if he senses that the person is bending down to pet him. I allow this only if I know the person.

There are guidelines, rules and regulations for each registry, and one common rule is that we must keep our dogs on leashes when visiting with only a few exceptions. Right now we primarily visit at the facility where my mother spent her last few years, where they have a rehab unit, long-term care, assisted living, and independent living. Because my mother had lived in 3 different areas, we know many of the staff and therapists, and some of the residents. I can tell that Ricky recognizes them and he is eager to get to them (translation: pulls hard on the leash to get to them!) and he sits down at their feet so they can pet him. I know he has a great time when we go visiting, and he is usually tired and sleeps in the car on the way home. It’s a lot of work for him, and also for me! I find I’m usually tired after a visit as well. But it’s a good feeling, because you know that the two of you have brought smiles and joy to a whole lot of people.

Some people try out pet therapy thinking they are going to help the patients or residents. I have found that we certainly do that, but we also serve the staff as well. They are in the “giving” mode all day long, and to have a few minutes of the day where they can stop and switch gears and be on the receiving end, pet my dog, and just enjoy him, is energizing and invigorating for them as well. Sometimes we spend more time visiting with the staff than we do with patients! Either way, we are helping folks, and that is our goal.

Sometimes people are interested in working with children with illnesses. I have found that this is probably the most difficult place to get started, as the children are usually in hospitals with many different hurdles for us as we begin. They are concerned about passing germs between patients, and we have found that the rules about visiting children can be quite restrictive. Infectious Control often requires that dogs not be allowed on the beds, or their paws may not touch anything but the floor (which makes is hard for someone in a bed to reach our dogs), etc. And there are more legal requirements regarding security, such as fingerprinting, background checks, etc that are required of the volunteers. Even our reading program at the city libraries in Albuquerque required a background check, copies of our driver’s licenses, in addition to copies of Ricky’s therapy dog credentials. So while this is a good goal to work towards, you might find that starting with other less-restrictive facilities might be an easier place to start.

I hope that if you are thinking of giving this a try, that you’ll ask around your local dog clubs, search on the internet, or check with the national registries to find out how to get involved in your area. I know that ATD has many testers (I’m one) and also has a way to test people even if no tester is nearby. If you have the time to volunteer even a few hours a month, and if your dog has suitable temperament and is sufficiently under control on leash, you will find it to be very rewarding. This is not something for every dog or every person. If you are squeamish around medical equipment, maybe you want to try a reading program with kids. And not every dog is cut out for therapy work. Ricky liked agility (except not the teeter, please mom!) but my knees just couldn’t keep up, so we are sidelined there. But I do think that the agility classes were good for us in many ways, helping our teamwork and our communication. Another benefit of regular visiting is that I keep up with the grooming better when I know we have a “date” coming up! And Ricky likes to be groomed if he knows he is going visiting.

Well, I didn’t mean to write a book here. But I have been involved for nearly 30 years, and I have found it to be very rewarding! If anyone has questions, feel free to contact me privately at millerdl@aol.com. I’ll also include the links to the 3 major therapy dog organizations at the bottom of the page if you wish to learn more. All three have extensive websites with lots of valuable information.

At the request of several AKC registered dog owners the American Kennel Club has established a program to recognize AKC registered dogs and their owners who volunteer their time and talents as a therapy dog and owner team. 

The first step towards earning an AKC Therapy Dog title is to have your dog registered by an AKC recognized therapy dog organization.  Once your dog is registered by an AKC recognized therapy dog organization you can begin to work towards earning an AKC Therapy Dog title.  The current titles awarded to therapy dogs and owners teams are: 
  • AKC Therapy Dog Novice (THDN). Must have completed 10 visits.
  • AKC Therapy Dog (THD). Must have completed 50 visits.
  • AKC Therapy Dog Advanced (THDA). Must have completed 100 visits.
  • AKC Therapy Dog Excellent (THDX). Must have completed 200 visits.
  • AKC Therapy Dog Distinguished (THDD). Must have completed 400 visits
To download a form from the AKC website to help you keep an ongoing log of therapy visits you and your dog have completed click on the link below. 

Debbie Miller & Ricky Joplin, Missouri

Alliance of Therapy Dogs
Therapy Dogs, International
Pet Partners