I was first introduced to therapy dogs when I was about five years old and first attended a therapy dog reading program hosted by my local library. This activity combined two things that I was incredibly interested in, dogs and reading, and I later became part of a certified therapy dog team with my own pet dog. Interacting with therapy dogs has brought me a tremendous amount of joy over the years, and I have seen amazing benefits for therapy dog visits across a variety of populations, though the one that is most special to me is children who are visually impaired. Here is why I think every visually impaired child should meet a therapy dog, based on an essay I wrote in 2016.
What is a therapy dog?
A therapy dog is a companion dog that is certified by an organization. Examples of organizations include 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 bring therapy dogs places without prior approval.
- Therapy Dog Reading Programs and Low Vision
- Digital Library Resources For Vision Impaired Patrons
- Why I Study Assistive Technology
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. They 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 (but are not limited to) guide dogs, mobility/physical assist dogs, seizure alert dogs, allergy alert dogs, diabetic assistance dogs, PTSD dogs, and autism service dogs.
They’re trained to be good boys (and girls)
Most therapy dogs go through a screening process before they even begin training. There are tests for they interact with people of all ages, loud noises, medical equipment, and similar. During the training, dogs learn 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 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 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. They can easily get distracted by smells, sights, and other stimuli. A lot of therapy dog events take place inside a calming environment 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. It’s a lot of fun to meet the neighborhood dogs, but meeting therapy dogs is a more low key event.
Dogs of all shapes, sizes, and breeds
Do you have a favorite breed of dog? I love all types of dogs, but some favorites are beagles, Norwegian Elkhounds, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, keeshonds, labs, bichon frises, and Samoyeds. While all of these breeds share very few similarities, one common trait is that they can become therapy dogs, and my first interactions with many of these breeds were with 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. This includes children that are in the hospital 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. The most common is picking up the dog so no one has to bend over. Other accommodations include 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 had a fear 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. 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 I do recommend dogs of any breed that are relaxed and that have experienced handlers. Some people may find they are more calm around small dogs at first, though I have also met people who preferred larger dogs- for example, 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 in communities across the country. 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. Therapy dogs are also available following traumatic events 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. Because of this, I was able to see firsthand how beneficial therapy dogs can be. Children would go from screaming about dog bites and hiding to laughing and petting my dog in an hour. Shy children who don’t say much would tell my dog all about their day and their favorite things. They would 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. This is 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 others can have this experience as well.