When I was about five years old, my family took me to a program at our local library where kids could read to certified therapy dogs. This program was designed to spark a love of reading, and also a love of dogs for the children who visited each month. Today I will be sharing why every visually impaired child should meet a therapy dog at least once and how they can help with decreasing anxiety around dogs.
What is a therapy dog?
A therapy dog is a companion dog that is certified by an organization, such as Petsmart Pet Partners or Therapy Dogs International. Owners go through the training with their personal dogs, and once the training is complete, the owner/dog team is tested by certified trainers. If they pass, then they can go to pre-approved visits at places such as nursing homes, hospitals, women’s shelters, schools, respite care, libraries, and more- anywhere the love of the dog can brighten someone’s day. They are not service dogs, and people cannot randomly bring therapy dogs places without prior approval. Read more about living with pet dogs here.
How is this different from a service dog?
A service dog is an assistance dog that is trained specifically to help people with disabilities. These dogs often go through training with nonprofit organizations, starting as young as nine weeks old, and learn specific commands in order to assist their owner. Service dogs are allowed to go most places with their owners, and are protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act, which protects against discrimination for people with disabilities. Examples of service dogs include guide dogs, mobility/physical assist dogs, seizure alert dogs, allergy alert dogs, diabetic assistance dogs, PTSD dogs, autism assistance dogs, and many others. Read more about service dogs here.
They’re trained to be good boys (and girls)
Most therapy dogs go through a screening process before they even begin training to see how they interact with people of all ages, loud noises, medical equipment, and similar. During the training, dogs are trained to act calmly and allow people to pet them or play with them, even when they aren’t the most gentle. One therapy dog I met that worked in crisis response situations was trained to sit in people’s laps as a way of calming them, allowing them to really focus on petting the dog instead of whatever else was going on. While no dog is perfect, therapy dogs certainly try to come close.
Less likely to react to accidental bumps
Since therapy dogs learn to get used to a pulled tail or getting stepped on, they don’t really bark or snap like other dogs do. While this doesn’t mean you can kick the dog like a soccer ball, it does mean that parents can worry less about their child doing one-time inappropriate actions towards a dog since the dog likely will not hurt them in response. I know I have accidentally stepped on many paws and tails when trying to navigate a room, and a majority of the dogs didn’t even seem to notice or care.
More calm than any dog on the street
When meeting a dog on the street, both the child and the dog are in a less familiar environment and can easily get distracted by smells, sights, and other stimuli. A lot of therapy dog events are held inside in a controlled and calming environment so people can interact with a dog without any additional distractions. The dogs also tend to be in their most relaxed state when they are sitting or lying down, as opposed to standing on the street with hot or cold concrete underneath their paws. While it is a lot of fun to meet the neighborhood dogs, meeting therapy dogs can be a more low key event. Read more about attending therapy dog reading programs here.
Dogs of all shapes, sizes, and breeds
Do you have a favorite breed of dog? I like all types of dogs, but some of my favorites are beagles, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, keeshonds, labs, goldendoodles, bichon frises, and samoyeds, to name a few. While all of these breeds share very few similarities in terms of appearance, one thing they all have in common is that they can become therapy dogs. Most therapy dog organizations have no breed restrictions, making it easy to meet your favorite type of dog, or find a new favorite.
Calm around children, especially those with disabilities
Therapy dogs and handlers go through training about how to behave around and work with children, especially those that may be hospitalized or have a disability. A dog does not judge what someone looks like or what limits they may have, they love people unconditionally. For kids that may have problems petting dogs, handlers can also help with simple accommodations so that a child can pet the dog. Some examples include picking up the dog so no one has to bend over, sitting in a certain position, or taking additional precautions to avoid licking.
Help to get over a fear of dogs
I’ve met many people who were terrified of dogs for a variety of reasons. Since therapy dogs are so calm, they are a great way for people to become used to dogs because they are less likely to run, jump, or bark out of turn. I can’t recommend any specific breed that is good for a first introduction to getting over a fear of dogs, but looking for dogs of any breed that are relaxed and that have experienced handlers is best. Some people may find they are more calm around small dogs at first, though I have also met people who preferred larger dogs- one of my friends got over their fear of dogs by interacting with a German Shepherd.
Where to meet a therapy dog
Therapy dog events have been gaining in popularity over the years, with more and more communities setting up times for kids to come meet therapy dogs. While I keep talking about library reading programs, there are other opportunities to interact with therapy dogs as well. Some examples of kid-only events include after school events, activity fairs, classroom visits, children’s hospitals, and similar. If there is a widespread community need, therapy dogs are also typically available following traumatic events such as school shootings and mandatory evacuations through the American Red Cross therapy dog program.
From a handler’s perspective
I was a certified therapy dog handler through Therapy Dogs International for almost ten years and was able to see firsthand all of the wonderful benefits that interacting with a therapy dog can bring. I saw children who would go from being terrified of dog bites and hiding to laughing and petting my dog in the span of an hour. Shy children who don’t say much would tell my dog all about their day and their favorite things, and even read books out loud at library reading programs. I loved getting to see hundreds of people smile and feel better about their day after petting my dog, and have a strong testimony about how influential interacting with a therapy dog can be.
I believe that every child should meet a therapy dog, but this is especially true for children with vision impairments because it can be difficult to find dogs to interact with otherwise. Being around therapy dogs changed my life for the better, and I hope that every child with a vision impairment is able to meet a therapy dog at least once in their life.