A therapy animal is born, not made. You can train your pet, but its inherent temperament cannot be changed. Here are some desirable characteristics:
- To have an undiscriminating love for everyone – children, men, women and other animals.
- To be outgoing, friendly and seek out interactions.
- To have a gentle and calm demeanor.
- To be non-aggressive towards people or other animals.
- To enjoy being petted and handled by people they haven’t met previously.
- To have some tolerance for physical discomfort without retaliation (e.g., biting). It’s not uncommon in therapy work for a resident in an assisted-living facility to accidentally step on a paw or a child in a hospital to grab an ear a little too roughly.
- To not be unduly alarmed or panic when encountering loud noises or voices, having to walk on multiple types of floor surfaces, ride in elevators and see/hear different types of equipment, particularly rolling equipment.
That’s a tall order, you say? Indeed it is! But it also shows just how special these wonderful creatures are.
Socialization teaches your pet to get along in the world, and it’s critical to successful therapy work. Properly socialized, there’s a good chance that your pet will be calm and accepting when he encounters those same experiences throughout his life. Not properly socialized, your pet may never learn to be comfortable around unfamiliar people and things, causing fear, anxiety and aggression.
Gently and positively using treats, praise and reassurance, introduce your pet to as many different types of people, environments and animals as possible so he learns there is nothing to fear.
- Contact – much of therapy work is about contact. Your pet should be handled daily by a wide variety of people:
- Men, women, children of all ages
- Men with facial hair
- People in wheelchairs or using walkers
- People wearing varying types of clothing and accessories (uniforms, hats, gloves, glasses, etc.)
All areas of the body should be touched, including paws, muzzle, back and sides, ears and gently pulling the tail.
- Don’t overwhelm your pet with too much, too fast.
- Don’t introduce the noise when the pet is nearby or distracted.
- Let your pet see objects that move or fall.
- Remain calm during the noise and reward your pet for remaining calm.
- NEVER take your pet to a fireworks display!
Pet stores allow pets and some home improvement stores permit well-behaved dogs. These are great places to take your pet to see different types of people, rolling equipment (shopping carts) and to hear unusual noises.
- Surfaces and elevators
- Introduce your pet to walking on various types of surfaces: wood, tile, carpet, textured floors, smooth floors, concrete, metal.
- Elevators – unless your volunteer activity is limited to a one-story building, you will likely be riding in an elevator with your pet.
- Other animals
- Always ask permission of the owner and ask if the other animal is friendly.
- Reward your pet for acting politely around other animals.
- Don’t force your pet to interact with another animal. (After all, we humans don’t want to interact with everyone we meet either!)
Important Tip: If your pet is afraid of something, forcing him to go near it could increase his fear. If he feels you will protect him from things and situations that scare him, it builds his trust in you and increases the bond between you.
Socialization needs to be reinforced throughout your pet’s life!
When volunteering, your pet may be the “star of the show,” but you are a team, so your role is every bit as important. Here are some attributes of a successful handler:
- Be confident and natural in your interactions with people and animals.
- Have control of your pet at all times.
- Be reliable.
- Actively interact with people; demonstrate excellent social skills.
- Be accepting of the differences in people’s behavior and reactions.
- Put your pet’s welfare first.
- Be aware of signs of stress in your pet and know how to gracefully remove your pet from stressful situations.