Therapy is real work. All of us who are owned by a Samoyed have a story we can relate about the friend, family member, or stranger that benefited from a Sammy hug. Pet-assisted therapy takes advantage of some of our breed’s most obvious charms, and turns them into smiles.
I have been taking Samoyeds to nursing homes and schools for the mentally and physically handicapped for the last eight years, having become an associate member of Therapy Dogs International (the dogs are the members!) at that time. When they began a program of evaluating dogs for membership, I was one of the first evaluators to be licensed. One of the hardest and easiest questions I am asked is “what does it take to be a therapy dog?”
Therapy dogs must have basic manners. Therapy Dogs International uses the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen test with a few modifications to evaluate prospective members. Since it is not an obedience test, per se, it works well for evaluating the dogs in a therapy situation. When the dogs appear at a nursing home, there is almost always a loud outcry, and a fair amount of enthusiasm.
An out-of-control animal is not only a danger to the residents of the home, but a bad ambassador for dogs in general. For a dog to walk into the situation on a slick floor, and head to the nearest wheelchair for attention impresses staff and residents alike. A reliable sit and down are also very helpful. At the school for the mentally handicapped, we are frequently in the common area of a dormitory-like building. Before the all breed club, of which I am a member, began this program, many of the residents of the school had never seen a live dog. They had seen pictures and television, but the real thing was frightening. Making a dog the size of a Sam lie down breaks most of the barriers. I had Dream lie down, and the child followed her, putting her head on Dream’s side. In a few minutes, she was sound asleep, and able to be carried to her room. Since Sams seem to think that “sit” and “shake” are two parts of the same exercise, that also goes over well! There are times that a small Sam may be asked to join a patient in bed, especially at a children’s facility. A quick down beside the patient keeps all kinds of accidents and problems from happening! One night, my first therapy Sam, Gefreda’s Twice Upon a Dream, was singled out by a teenager who had just been transferred to the school. The child was distraught, and had been hysterical all day. She latched onto Dream, petting her and telling her her troubles.
An even temperament is also necessary for therapy work. Many of the nursing homes that we visit have Alzheimer’s patients and other elderly individuals with less than perfect control of their limbs. Most dogs seem to be able to sense a child or person whose control is not “normal,” and will tolerate more from that individual. As patients reach for a dog, or try to pet it, it is not uncommon for them to grab their hair and pull it. Under no circumstances can a dog being used for this work answer with bared teeth. We have noticed that the dogs become ingenious at avoiding the grab, or getting out of it, normally with our help. As you become a regular volunteer at a facility, you will learn which patients need to be watched carefully, and which can be turned loose with the dog. Even though you try to protect your dog, accidents happen. I have intercepted kicks and slaps, but just as many have gotten through while sitting peacefully being petted. In one instance, a patient was saying something that sounded like “mine?”; I was responding that, “Yes, the dog is mine.” As we got ready to leave, and were walking out, the client grabbed my dog, knocking her to the floor, and hollered, “mine!” Dream lay there, looking up at me from under the child, with eyes that expressively asked that I get her out of this! We got the child off, Dream kissed her face, wagged her tail, and we walked off.
Samoyeds seem to be made for therapy work. Their natural orientation towards people gives them the friendly, outgoing nature that is the hallmark of a good therapy dog. Their beauty draws the eye of the patients, and makes them appear less threatening than their size might otherwise make them. With a bit of training, most of our dogs can do good service.
To prepare a puppy for work as a therapy dog, socialize it thoroughly. Get it used to children, loud, sudden noises, and being lifted as though to a bed. Some people will be afraid of a Samoyed, because of their size. A few tricks, a funny hat, or a seasonal costume seems to help with that. Children’s and small adults’ ready-made costumes, or decorated sweatshirts work well.
The rules for taking a dog out for therapy work are few. Naturally, the dog must be clean, and always on a leash. The other end of the leash should be either in your hand, or that of a responsible person. Your attire should be clean and neat, but practical for bending, lifting, and walking. Bitches in season should not be taken.
Since becoming an evaluator for Therapy Dogs International, I have evaluated more dogs of every breed and of no breed than I care to remember. The best evaluation that I have ever been involved in was the one at the 1994 Samoyed Club of America National Specialty. This was the first evaluation that I have looked back on without remembering one dog that I felt was temperamentally unsuited for the work.
Becoming involved in therapy is one of the most rewarding things you can do with your Sammy. In a little while, you will have more stories of responses by non-responsive patients, verbalization from non-verbal patients, and little miracles that take place with your dog and the people you visit. One night, again at the school for the mentally handicapped, we amazed every therapist there. Five people with assorted breeds were working. Because a few of the regular handlers were ill, and some who were there but their dogs couldn’t come that night, none of us had our own dogs. A young man who had always eagerly greeted the dogs hung back. He finally came up to me and said, “That over there is your dog. The postman has her dog,” — we had a mail carrier who brought a Golden. Even though she never came in uniform, her occupation stuck in their minds — “and he has his dog. This dog goes with the girl with the long hair, and she isn’t here.” This child had not seen us in thirty days but he remembered. He couldn’t remember how to tie his shoes from one day to the next, but he remembered us. You and your dog will come home exhausted and emotionally drained, but ready to go back the next time. You will also find yourself becoming attached to the people you visit and hurting when you find they are no longer there.
Pet-assisted therapy is becoming increasingly accepted. Hospitals, nursing homes, pediatric care facilities, schools for the handicapped, are all looking for people and dogs. There are several therapy societies around the country and all breed clubs are using pet therapy programs as public education for their annual report to AKC. Some hospitals are carrying the program a step farther, using dogs in physical therapy to retrieve balls, tug against a patient’s pull, or help with walkers and wheelchairs. These programs generally test their own dogs. By becoming involved in some form of pet therapy, you have the opportunity to give something back to your community, to be an ambassador for the good that dogs can do, and give your dog a fun outing.
-By Lisa Peterson