Therapy Dogs

By Martha Michael >>>

Tracy Grant has a dog that spends a lot of time in hospitals. No, he’s not being treated for any medical conditions; in fact, it’s the other way around. Her 10-year-old Maltipoo, “Cosmo,” is the one actually offering the treatment to patients there.

“Cosmo is my therapy dog,” Grant said. “He has been volunteering since he was 2.”

The human-canine team of two visits both Henry Mayo Memorial Hospital and Northridge Hospital on a regular basis.

“He loves going to the Physical Therapy Department to help people get their motor skills back,” she said. “They throw a tennis ball and he brings it back to them — he’s taught himself to put the ball on the foot rest of the wheelchair (That was a proud mom moment the first time I saw him do this).”

Grant doesn’t train dogs. She and Cosmo entered the Pet Smart Therapy Dog Training Program, followed by time with another trainer before testing to be a therapy dog team.
“The dogs need to be comfortable around loud noises as well moving gurneys and wheelchairs,” she described. “They are not allowed to bark while in the hospital.”

According to the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, the responsibilities and training of therapy dogs differs from those of service dogs, which work with disabled partners to help them attain safety and independence. Therapy dogs provide physical and psychological support to individuals in schools, hospitals, hospice situations, nursing homes and elsewhere. They interact more closely with others, whereas a service dog should not be touched and petted by passersby.

“A service dog is trained to help a specific person and a therapy dog is trained to interact with everybody,” Grant said.

Some of the practical applications for a trained therapy dog include giving children the confidence to read aloud and giving support to individuals in psychotherapy.

While almost anyone may train a therapy dog, there are standards they need to meet, as well as a registration process.

“I believe anyone can do this as long as you’re willing to put in the time to work with your dog,” Grant said. “We are always working on our skills — walking nicely on a leash, ignoring other dogs while on a walk, being social with people.”

Therapy dog owners say it’s a rewarding process, especially when they hear the responses of patients whose spirits are lifted from a visit.

“I recently received a card from a patient and her new baby thanking us for taking the time to visit while she was bedridden while pregnant,” Grant shared. “I also hear from a lot of people how their loved ones had dog visits and how thankful they were for them. People miss their pets while they are in the hospital.”

The work of therapy dogs reminds those around them that canines possess healing qualities that benefit humankind, whether they’re trained or not. That’s probably why they’re commonly referred to as man’s best friend.