Therapy Dog: An Intro to Pet Therapy Programs

written by Mike Cruz, guest blogger

We here at Cloud Star always enjoy hearing from our customers, learning not only how our products help their dogs, but what they do in their local communities.  A few weeks ago we heard from Mike Cruz and his dog Dakota:

“One of my dogs, Dakota, is a registered Therapy Dog …  Dakota and I visit kids at CHOC (Children’s Hospital of Orange County) every Saturday.  It’s a very rewarding experience but one that requires that Dakota gets a bath every week.  I’ve tried many products but have found nothing that works as well as Buddy Wash and Buddy Rinse.”

We were delighted to hear from Mike and Dakota, and couldn’t resist learning more about Dakota’s work as a registered therapy dog. Here is Mike as our featured guest blogger, who shares about his and Dakota’s experiences.  We hope you enjoy!

What is it about animals that calms, comforts and lifts the spirits of people? How can the simple act of petting a dog lower blood pressure, increase circulation and create an overall feeling of tranquility?

At the worst of times, no matter how down we feel, no matter how poor our health, our animal companions give us unconditional love and affection. It is this bond between animals and humans that makes Pet Therapy programs so popular and so successful in hospitals, assisted care facilities, hospice centers and rehabilitation programs.

Simply put, Pet Therapy is the experience of a trained and registered dog (or cat, bird, rabbit, horse…) and their human companion visiting with patients and their families. Some patients simply enjoy chatting with the companion about memories of their past pets while others enjoy the experience of having the dog join them on their bed for petting, hugs and kisses. Each visit may be unique but the end result is often the same – A moment for the patient to forget where they are and what they are going through.

My Great Pyrenees, Dakota, and I became a registered Pet Partner team through Delta Society in December, 2010. Dakota is a great fit for the program as she is not only obedient and loving but extremely calm and patient with adults and children alike.

After receiving our certification, we began volunteering at Kaiser Hospital where we visited with adult patients and their families and soon after began working at Children’s Hospital Orange County (CHOC)  where we visit with children ranging from a few days old to 18+ along with their parents and siblings. While the visits provide the patients with the benefits I mentioned above, the comfort and love that Dakota provides also allows the families, who are also going through difficult and emotional challenges, the same benefits. Sometimes the result of our visit is a simple smile while others can be so much more.

Take for example a visit with a gentleman at Kaiser in early 2011. When we arrived, we knocked on his door and asked if he’d like a visit. In a strong, enthusiastic voice he invited us to come in. We were there for about 5 minutes with Dakota getting lots of petting and me talking with him about his favorite dog, how much he missed him and how excited he was to see him again once he left the hospital. As our visit was winding down, the doctor came in to check on the man. As we were leaving, I could hear the doctor ask how he was feeling. “I’ve been in so much pain but for the last 5 minutes, I haven’t given it any thought” was his reply.

Or the pre-teen boy at CHOC who had been too sick to do more than lie in bed and occasionally play video games on a portable system that had been wheeled into his room. When Dakota and I came in, I asked if he would like her to visit with him on his bed. He said no, he’d come down to the floor to see her. I had no idea at that moment that this was something different for this boy. It was only a few minutes into our visit when the mom told her son, “The doctor just walked by your door and did a double-take. He was very surprised to see you out of bed!”

So what does it take to become a Pet Therapy team? While the process is quite detailed, it isn’t too difficult if the dog has the right personality and a good bond with his or her owner. The process begins with a visit to a therapy dog organization’s website such as Delta Society which is the organization that Dakota and I are members of. At Delta, you’ll need to purchase and study their training manual and complete an open-book test. Once you’ve completed the study materials, and your dog has been cleared by your vet to be in good health and a good candidate to be a therapy dog, you’ll go through a skills and aptitude evaluation. This evaluation is a test showing your dog knows basic commands (sit, stay, come, down, etc.) both at your side and from several feet away, walks well on a leash, isn’t frightened by equipment such as crutches, walkers and wheelchairs, and can handle the distractions and noises often found in the halls of a hospital. Once you and your dog pass the evaluation, and you complete your registration form, you are registered as a Pet Partner team. It is this registration that hospitals require before you can sign up to volunteer with them. Once you have it, you can then begin the process of becoming a volunteer with the care center you’ve chosen to work at. While the process varies from one hospital to the next, I’ve found that the two we’ve worked at require a background check, a training or orientation session, full immunizations for the human (which the hospital will often pay for), a visit where you shadow another Pet Partner team on their rounds and finally your first visit with your dog while you’re shadowed by either another Pet Partner human or a hospital employee. After you have completed all of these steps, you and your pet are allowed to visit on your own at whatever schedule works best for the hospital, you and your partner.

To visit, you must follow strict rules and guidelines to prevent the spread of germs and disease from one person to another. All dogs must be bathed and groomed no more than 24 hours prior to their visit, must be in good health, have their nails cut regularly, and be free of parasites, fleas and other problems. Plus, most hospitals (and good common sense) require that anyone who pets the dog while on duty sanitizes their hands with an alcohol based hand sanitizer both before and after their contact with the dog.

So why spend the time going through all of this, sharing your dog with strangers and giving up some of your free time every week? For everyone, the answer to this differs. For me, it was a chance to give back in a unique way. As an animal lover, I have always appreciated the pleasure that my dogs have given me through good times and bad and wanted to bring that feeling to others who have a bigger need than any I have ever had. I also knew that it would be a good experience for Dakota since she’d get to go places, meet new people and get some love and attention – all things that she enjoys.

For dog owners who take their dogs out with them in public, the pleasure that sharing your dog with others brings is rewarding. Now imagine doing so with those who can’t get out, who need a distraction from their problems and who miss the companionship of their animals at home. If you were in their shoes, wouldn’t you treasure a five minute visit with a loving dog? If so, please consider becoming a Pet Therapy team and sharing the happiness that only a cold nose or a lick on the cheek can bring.

3 Responses to “Therapy Dog: An Intro to Pet Therapy Programs”

  1. 1 JibDur
    September 15, 2011 at 7:40 am

    Over the last couple of years my child has spent more than her share of time at CHOC hospital. The dog program is excellent and the children all look forward to seeing these dogs and their owners. I think I remember Marc and Dakota. She is a very large fury white dog and if you are the providers of the shampoo then you have done a great job. Marcs hair was nice too…

    • 2 cloudstar
      September 15, 2011 at 7:51 am

      JibDur – Thank you so much for sharing! We always love to hear how people and their dogs are making a difference in their local community, and we’re glad to hear they made a difference in your life as well!

    • 3 Mike Cruz
      September 15, 2011 at 10:10 am

      Hi JibDur. This is Mike – Dakota’s owner. Thanks for the comment. I’m glad that Dakota’s visit with your child was memorable and am glad that you found this post. While I’m glad that the shampoo’s results were noticeable on Dakota, I’m sorry to say that I’ve not been using it on my hair. :0) But maybe I will…?

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