When it comes to therapy animals, you’ve probably heard and seen it all. Just this past weekend I stopped in the Costco parking lot to pet an adorable French bulldog who was wearing a “therapy animal” vest.
“Is it OK if I pet your dog?” I asked. “I know you’re not supposed to pet working animals without permission.”
The man laughed and waved away my request. Then he whispered, “He’s not really a therapy dog. I just put this on so I can take him into the store with me.”
Of course, dog owners like this give legit therapy animals a bad name and make the American public that more skeptical about the role that therapy animals play in a person’s life. With Monday, April 30 as National Therapy Animal Day, I thought it would be a good time to explain exactly what therapy animals do to help people and what goes into getting an animal trained as one.
As far as real therapy animals go, you can’t just put a vest on your dog, cat or guinea pig and expect people to take you seriously. Therapy animals go through rigorous training to earn their title. The animal’s handler has to go through a training course, too, plus the animal itself must pass a health screening among other criteria.
Here are some of the point-by-point items that Pet Partners uses when evaluating an animal and/or handler:
Pet Partners therapy animals must meet the following criteria:
- Are at least one year old at the time of evaluation or six months old for rabbits, guinea pigs and rats.
- Have lived in the owner’s home for at least six months or one year for birds.
- Must be reliably house-trained. Waste collection devices are not permitted, with the exception of flight suits for birds.
- Be currently vaccinated against rabies. Rabbits, guinea pigs, rats and birds are exempt from this requirement. Titers are not accepted in lieu of vaccination.
- May not be fed a raw meat diet.
- Have no history of aggression or seriously injuring either people or other animals. This includes animals that have been trained to aggressively protect and/or have been encouraged to bite, even if it is a component of dog sport, such as Schutzhund.
- Demonstrate good basic obedience skills. Animals walking with a lead should walk on a loose leash, and respond reliably to common commands such as sit, down, stay, come and leave it.
- Welcome, not merely tolerate, interactions with strangers.
- Be comfortable wearing Pet Partners acceptable equipment.
Successful handlers must be able to do the following:
- Read their animal’s particular body language and recognize when their animal is stressed, anxious, concerned, overstimulated or fatigued.
- Demonstrate positive interactions with their animal by praising, cueing, encouraging and reassuring the animal as needed.
- Cue or redirect their animal without raising their voice, forcefully jerking on the leash or offering the animal food or toys.
- Make casual conversation with those they meet on visits while still being attentive to their animal.
- Guide the interactions of others with the animal in a professional and polite manner.
- Advocate for the safety and well-being of their animal at all times.
FYI, it isn’t just dogs that can be therapy animals. Pet Partners register nine species for therapy animal work. They are:
- guinea pigs
- llamas and alpacas
- miniature pigs
The American Kennel Club website lists therapy training groups like Pet Partners as well as local therapy organizations, in case you want to get involved with your animal. Whatever you do, show some respect for therapy animals and don’t just put a vest on your dog so you can take it shopping with you.
Finally, one of the places that therapy animals do some of the best work is in children’s hospitals. Grants from PetSmart Charities help fund these programs and keep smiles on children’s faces, even as they’re being treated for serious illnesses.