When 'Going to the Dogs' Is a Good Thing
I adore dogs, particularly “sight” hounds – dogs that traditionally hunt using speed and sight instead of scent. A parade of these hounds, including greyhounds and Ibizan hounds from various rescue organizations, has passed through my family’s doors. Some we adopted and others were foster dogs we helped move one step closer to their forever homes.
Recently, we were asked to foster a six-month-old American staghound named Wallace. I’m pretty dog savvy, but I’d never heard of this breed. Turns out it’s a cross of Scottish deerhound and greyhound that’s been in the United States since colonial times.
My research revealed that George Washington had a staghound named Sweet Lips. General George Custer had several (I even saw photographs of them in his encampments) and his wife often wrote about their “sweet hounds.” Of course we said yes and Wallace became part of our family, soon followed by his brother, Duncan.
At a local event, I met members of Dogs On Call, Inc. (DOC), a Baraboo, Wis.-based pet therapy organization and learned about therapy dogs and the Pet Partners® Program, a nationally recognized, nonprofit organization that offers pet therapy.
Pet therapy is about promoting positive human-animal interaction to improve the physical, emotional and psychological lives of those served and I thought Wallace just might have the makings of a therapy dog.
DOC offers Pet Partners Team Training and evaluation for Pet Partners registration. They offer a matching service for medical, residential and educational facilities requesting visits from therapy dogs, and outreach programs to promote the benefits of animal-assisted interactions.
Wallace and I soon started our journey to become a certified therapy team. I attended training to learn the skills necessary to visit people safely with Wallace. After much practice, we were evaluated to see how well the handler (me) helps the animal (Wallace) manage their behavior, and how well the animal responds to the handler. The test is about 40 minutes long and consists of a skills test, which demonstrates whether the animal can be controlled by the handler and follow basic commands, and the aptitude test, which simulates conditions you may encounter on a therapy visit.
Wallace is young for a therapy dog, so I didn’t expect us to pass the first time but I wanted to learn where we needed to improve. At the end, our evaluator asked if Wallace could have an extra treat … because he passed! I was so proud of him.
We worked with DOC to decide what type of visiting we wanted to do. Being first-timers, we decided on a local assisted-living facility as it would offer a quiet, lower-activity environment.
We’ve been visiting at the assisted-living facility for almost a year, and we also enjoy doing educational events that allow us to promote the benefits of pet therapy and interacting safely with animals.
Being a pet therapy team has taught us patience and how important little things are. Sometimes we spark a brief memory of a long-ago pet or see an interest in petting Wallace from someone who seldom interacts with animals. Sometimes we offer a few minutes of happiness for someone suffering the confusion and sadness of dementia. Or, a child who is safer because he or she learns to always ask a dog owner if it’s OK to pet the dog instead of just approaching it.
Nationwide, there is a big demand for pet therapy visits and not enough teams to go around. If you are interested, Pet Partners has lots of great information online. It’s a wonderful way to share our love of dogs and make a difference.
Oh, and Wallace says all the petting is pretty nice too!
Note: if you have an interest in working with Pet Partners, they can be contacted at: