In the autumn of 2016, Jock and I started our special journey. I actually had to start it on my own - I signed up with Pet Partners, a national organization that registers therapy animal teams and provides therapy animal handlers with learning opportunities via classes like "Infection Prevention and Control: Therapy Animal Visitation in Healthcare Settings" or working with specific sets of folks, such as veterans, or patients with dementia or Alzheimer's.
I first had to take an animal handler course. Since there wasn't an in-person workshop available near me, I had the opportunity to take the online class. The class objective is to teach a (potential) therapy animal volunteer how to work with his or her animal in a variety of settings, as well as teaching the volunteer the basic ground rules of being a therapy animal team. The class also teaches the difference among: therapy animals, service animals, and emotional support animals. (You can read the full explanations here, on Pet Partners' "Terminology" page.)
Basically (to quote Pet Partners' "Terminology" page), therapy animals (like Jock) provide affection and comfort to various members of the public, typically in facility settings such as hospitals, retirement homes, and schools. These pets have a special aptitude for interacting with members of the public and enjoy doing so. Therapy animal owners volunteer their time to visit with their animal in the community.
Service animals (or assistance animals) on the other hand, are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. So a guide dog would fall into this category. These animals are allowed by law to go wherever their humans are allowed (restaurants, airlines, etc).
Emotional support animals, are also known as "comfort animals" and provide emotional or therapeutic support to their individual humans. (They don't have the same rights to go anywhere service animals go.) These animals are often dogs, but can be other animals, as well.
Speaking of other animals, did you know that Pet Partners registers nine species of animals as "therapy animals"?! Not only do they register dogs, they also register rabbits, certain breeds of birds (like parrots), horses, llamas, alpacas, rats, cats, and guinea pigs! Cool, huh?
Anyway, after I took the online class and passed the exam, I had to schedule an in-person evaluation for myself and Jock. We did that on November 20, 2016.
We had to follow the rules for a therapy animal visit (for canines), so within 24 hours of the evaluation, I had to ensure that Jock was bathed. I also had to be sure his nails were trimmed to an appropriate length, and didn't have any sharp spots.
He had to have his collar and leash that he'd be wearing on visits (just a standard nylon collar and leash - no training collars). He'd passed his AKC Canine Good Citizen test a couple years earlier, so this evaluation wasn't really "new" because the evaluation tested for similar things.
The evaluator had us perform various exercises, such as:
- walking a pattern (to ensure Jock would "heel" appropriately and with good manners and not pull on the leash),
- sit (or down) and stay,
- not get upset at a sudden loud noise (a heavy (or metal) object was dropped a few feet behind him, and they watched to see his reaction - he could startle, but if he got scared or aggravated, that wouldn't be a positive thing),
- walking past a "neutral" dog (a calm one that couldn't care less that another dog was in the room with it),
- being brushed and handled by a person unfamiliar to him,
- his reaction to meeting someone in a wheelchair or walker . . .
Well, we passed! And within a few weeks, after ensuring Pet Partners had Jock's health form filled out by his veterinarian (detailing that he is in good health and is up-to-date on his vaccinations), we had our ID badge that I need to wear on all visits. Therapy teams, by the way, need to be re-evaluated every two years to ensure we remain equal to (or exceeding) necessary therapy animal standards.
So, what have we done as a therapy animal team so far? Well, our first therapy dog outing was to the University of Iowa School of Law (in Iowa City, IA) during finals week in December 2016, to provide stress relief for the University's law students. Jock really enjoyed having all these students coming up to him and petting him. And they were so grateful to have a few minutes with a cute dog.
There was one student in particular who was SO THANKFUL we were there. She couldn't stop telling me how much she appreciated having a therapy dog there, even if she could only spend five minutes with Jock. That right there made me so happy I decided to become a therapy dog team with Jock!
We have also started going to an assisted living facility near our home, to visit with a couple residents whose families requested a therapy dog visit. When Jock and I go there, we make sure to visit these two residents, but we also visit with other residents who happen to be in the day room/living room during our visits.
We need to wear special name badges at the assisted living facility. Jock gets his own badge, and his title is "Friendly Visitor." Awwwww! Here is his ID's photo (awwww!):
At the assisted living facility, there are two residents in particular who now seem to recognize us; their faces light up with joy when they see us. It is truly a special thing. The lady gets so happy and is so excited when I take Jock over to her to pet him. The other resident, while he seems to have no interest in petting Jock, seems to get a lot of joy simply by watching other residents (this "senior" lady in particular) fawn over Jock.
I'm hoping in the future (within the next couple months) to start volunteering occasionally at the nearby hospital - hopefully in the pediatric section. And, as a veteran myself, maybe Jock and I can start working with veterans in the future.
Oh, and if you want to learn more about Pet Partners, please check out the Pet Partners website.