Therapy Dogs: Could We Do It Better?

Several years ago, I saw a poster asking pet owners if they wanted to join a local program in which their dogs would be ‘therapy dogs’ and participate in ‘animal-assisted therapy’ that often involved visiting schools, hospitals, and other venues where the dog would meet, greet, and sometimes entertain the residents of that venue. 

I had been looking for some kind of work or pastime for Dee, my mixed-breed girl, so I signed up for the training classes, and after about six hours of the class time, she passed the test and was accepted into the program.  (This program is entirely local, and their certification is not the exam offered by the national therapy dog organizations.)  The training was loosely modeled on the Canine Good Citizen exam, and I have taken quite a few of my dog through the CGC exam, so I was familiar and comfortable with Dee’s classes.  The training methods were positive, with the occasional exception of a recommended collar correction; since Dee is enormously food-motivated, I can get her attention and if necessary bait her through just about anything, so I didn’t use the collar correction. 

After passing the certification test, we went to a number of programs as observers, as the rules required.  I think I started to see, then, some of the things that would come to bother me a great deal, but I was happy to be doing this with Dee and I didn’t look too closely at my scruples.  We finished the observation phase of training and asked to be assigned to a high school in a nearby suburb where the students were dealing with emotional or behavioral issues.  Every other week, we spent an hour there and different groups of teenagers interacted with the group’s dogs.  It was a rather unfocused program:  the organization wanted dogs to be able to perform tricks, which they would use when visiting children and seniors in hospitals, but that didn’t seem like enough for the teenaged kids in the high school program.  What were we supposed to be doing?  I asked, no one knew the answer.  I’m a compliance officer and my default behavior is ‘train them!’, so I suggested we train the kids in how to interact with dogs.  I started showing the students how to elicit certain behaviors from Dee with cues and rewards, and some of them were very good at it.  We had fun with that!

Most of the students in the program were from neighborhoods where dogs have at worst been weaponized, and in general are viewed as dangerous.  The program volunteers did several instructional sessions on how to avoid confrontations with dangerous dogs – and heard quite a few stories from the students of dogs they knew who had bitten people, or people they knew who had been attacked by dogs – but after that, the program seemed to stumble to a halt again.  One of the other volunteers spent several sessions showing the students how to brush and groom her Yorkie-Poo.  Watching this, I thought through an alternate educational module, which I then presented to the organization, called the RESPECT program.

Routine:         Dogs like a routine, where things like meals, walks, and bedtime happen every day at about the same time. Routines make dogs feel secure and comfortable in their homes.

Exercise:        All dogs need some amount of exercise daily. On-leash walks are one form of daily exercise. In a fenced yard, you can also play fetch or other games that allow your dog to run around.

Space:            All dogs need space, and all dogs are bothered by being crowded. Never force your dog to meet people or other dogs. Never let anyone grab your dog or bring another dog right up to your dog’s face.

Play:         Dogs learn through playing.  You can teach your dog good manners, and even tricks, by playing with them and rewarding the behaviors you want.  Set aside some time every day to play with your dog.

Exposure:     Dogs need to be exposed to things outside their houses and yards, but not in ways that make them feel frightened or overwhelmed.  Take your dog one new place every month, and take plenty of treats with you to reward your dog’s good behavior!  Your dog should be on leash for all outings.

Calmness:      Your dog needs you to be calm and not use loud or angry tones of voice to him. Negative emotions are very upsetting to dogs, making them anxious and fearful. Be calm around your dog.

Time:             Most of all, your dog needs your time. Owning a dog is a commitment of the time that it takes to care for and work with the dog.  Dogs can’t play video games, they need you to interact with them for some time every day.

I could develop every one of those topics into a multi-week training module.  In fact, I wanted to do that!  I thought it would be fun, and the kids would enjoy it!  But I wasn’t particularly surprised when the proposal went nowhere.  By that point, I’d seen enough to realize that I was in a bureaucracy, where the existing forms and routines were prized by the people who kept them going.  The Yorkie-Poo’s owner was offered the Group Leader position of the high school visitation program.  I took a break to attend to matters relating to my mom’s serious health issues.  Dee stopped doing her visits – I felt badly about that.

After maybe six months, I e-mailed the program and asked to be put back on the active participant list.  Dee had to renew her certification, so I drove her up to the North Shore to the program’s headquarters and we went through an exam similar to the one at the conclusion of her initial training.  She passed and we were approved to return to visits.

But the high school program had fallen apart for lack of participants, so I put Dee in a program where the dogs visit the developmentally disabled students of a grade school in a nearby suburb.  That was a very different experience and Dee was at first unsure what to make of it, but with more visits she relaxed and grew to enjoy seeing some of the kids who were able to pet her and talk to her a bit.  On any given day, quite a few of the children weren’t interactive or communicative, and we never knew what the sessions would look like.  In addition to that, I was offered a spot in a Read To Rover program at a suburban library, and I accepted that. 

The library program was for children ages 7 through 12, and the format was simple and straightforward:  the kids would come in to the room that the library had provided for the program, would select a book, and would take it to one of the ‘reading stations’ where a program volunteer and dog waited.  The child would then read the book to the dog.  There have been many, many studies that show this ‘read to a dog’ format helps children develop reading skills and confidence, and I thought it was a wonderful program.

Dee thought it was B-O-R-I-N-G.  She wanted to do something!  She wanted pets!  And treats!  She was willing to work for them, but she was expected to just LIE there like a stuffed animal, she complained to me.  I saw her point.  I wondered how to remedy this, so she would like the program more.  But while I wondered, the option of her liking the program at all ceased to exist.  One evening a couple came into the reading room with their two children.  One, a girl about 7, was in the program; the other, a boy of about 18 months, clearly was not.  I was later told that the program rules prohibit children younger than 7 being around the dogs, but no one told this couple that on the evening when all hell broke loose.  While one parent sat with the 7-year old girl who was reading, the other parent attempted to rein in the toddler, who was very active.  And obnoxious.  More than once, the toddler and attendant parent were told to not touch the dogs.  Dee, who had had her ear grabbed very painfully by a disabled child in the other school the week before this, was eyeing the toddler warily at first, and then with animosity.  When he reached out again for her head, I put my hand down and said to the child ‘NOT her head, leave alone!’  Less than a minute later, he grabbed for her head again and this time Dee, with a scream that would have done a banshee proud, launched herself at the child’s face.

If I had it on video, it would be a textbook illustration of how a dog issues a warning.  No part of Dee made contact with the child, but her lips were drawn back showing all her teeth, and she was eye to eye with the little boy as she shrieked at him to leave her alone.  Knowing Dee, I’m sure the language would have been pretty blue if it had been English.  And now the parents, who hadn’t been controlling their child, were freaking out and the program people were freaking out and I was grabbing my dog and thinking ‘we need to get out of here, this is BS’ and when the dust had settled, we were out in the parking lot headed for our car and there had been a pretty spectacular FINIS written to our career in the therapy organization.

I back my dog one hundred percent, and I did from the instant it happened.  She did not bite the child.  She gave him one of her most unambiguous and emphatic LEAVE ME ALONE messages and she had every right to do so.  She was in no way wrong or even ill-mannered.  Shame on the parents for ignoring the safety rules of the reading program.  Shame on the library admin for letting them flout those rules.  Shame on the therapy organization people for not calling a halt to the program that evening because of that failure.  They set my dog up for an unpleasant event, and they set that child up to be traumatized by the consequences of their failures.

For some time afterward, I was too shaken by the events of that evening to think anything of it other than ‘thank goodness we’re out of that program, never again!’  But then I started to think of all the other things about that program that had bothered me, and to wonder if this is really what ‘animal assisted therapy’ should look like.  They never showed the slightest interest in educating the people that the dogs visited about dog behavior, dog care, or dog/human interaction.  The assumption was that the dog should accept any behavior the humans chose to inflict on it, and should be ‘bomb-proof’ enough to not react to it if it happened to be really stupid behavior.  Hey, how about not letting people do that to the dogs?!  We were told in training that people would want to hug our dogs, so our dogs should learn to tolerate that.  I call bullshit on that:  some dogs love being hugged, others will do anything to avoid it.  Why can’t you say to the hospital patient or the school student, ‘Dogs are nervous about hugs, but you can pet Rover like this’ and demonstrate a better approach?  Train the dogs to deliver teddy bears to the patients or students; they can hug those!  There are SO MANY WAYS to achieve the goal of making the humans better equipped to meet dogs; why was that absolutely outside the realm of consideration?

Now, of course, with COVID 19, the therapy group activities are on hold.  I don’t have any interest in the group and will never return to that form of activity for any of my dogs, but I shake my head at their short-sightedness and entrenched bureaucracy that keeps them from moving out of the 1970s and into the current age of amazing advances in dog training and behavioral studies.  I wonder if there are other animal therapy programs that do it better; I hope so, for everyone’s sake.

3 thoughts on “Therapy Dogs: Could We Do It Better?

  1. I have been interested in therapy dog programs especially the reading programs (librarian by profession) but I am also aware that my much loved mix breed finds sitting still a real challenge. I know of children with fear issues and like you I would like to see these programs used much more constructively for both the dogs and the people. I especially like the idea of getting the dog to fetch a teddy bear for those who want to hug. Thank you for writing this post hopefully it will add to a much needed conversation about how these programs are run and developed. They are valuable but perhaps they need a more rounded and professional approach that puts the dogs well being as central to positive outcomes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have thought of how to make the reading program more engaging for the dog, and maybe for the child as well — something like: the child reads a page, then the child requests a trick or obedience behavior from the dog, rewards the dog, and continues reading. It would break up the reading, but only in order to interact with the dog. You’re right, a lot of dogs get bored just sitting still, they’re social animals and want to engage with the kids!
      There are a lot of opportunities for education in animal-assisted therapy. I am hopeful that change will come sooner than later.

      Liked by 1 person

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