What's More Fun for a Coton and More Rewarding for an Owner than to Fill Hearts with Joy and Laughter?
Cotons are head turners wherever they go. You can imagine the exclamations of delight that greet our Coton Choti when she prances into a nursing facility. Faces brighten with interest and pleasure, and the questions and lively conversations begin immediately. "What kind of dog is she? How old is your dog? How much does she weigh? How often do you have to bathe her?" Suddenly people are talking, telling each other and me about dogs that they once had, cooing over Choti as they reach to pet her and laughing as she does some tricks. Nursing homes can be sad and depressing and I do not enjoy visiting them without a dog, but with Choti they become happy places full of smiling faces and delighted laughter. Additionally, visits there are not without their amusing moments, as when one lady informed me that she used to have a cat that looked just like mine and kept saying "Nice kitty!" the whole time she petted Choti. It gave her great joy to have a cat come to visit!
In institutions, the presence of a therapy dog brings vitality into a barren atmosphere. The benefits begin even before the visit as residents eagerly anticipate the dog’s arrival, and they linger long afterwards as people share news of the visit with family, roommates or staff. For people who rarely have visitors, a visit from a therapy dog is quite often the highlight of the week.
As members of a Boston area pet visitation program called Caring Canines, Choti and I participate in scheduled visits to adult day care programs, assisted-living facilities, nursing homes, a residential school for children with special needs, nursing homes and a psychiatric hospital. These are just some of the types of places that eagerly welcome therapy dogs. Therapy dogs are often used in oncology units in hospitals where patients are receiving chemotherapy. Individual handlers may take their therapy dogs to visit shut-ins or senior citizen centers, or take them to visit schools as part of educational programs. In New York City therapy dogs have been serving at Ground Zero as "comfort dogs."
If you have a friendly, affectionate Coton who loves meeting people, you might wish to look for ways to share that fluffy wagging tail and those Coton kisses with others. Joining an existing pet visitation program is the ideal way to get started. Programs can often be found in or near large metropolitan areas. Check with local hospitals and animal shelters to see if they have a pet visitation program. An excellent resource for finding groups through the Internet is Dogplay.com. This site has listings by state of existing programs at Dog Play. If you are unable to locate a program to join, contact the national therapy dog registries to find out if they have evaluators in your area. (A listing of the four major registry organizations and their contact information is below.) Although each organization may have slight variations in their requirements for certification, most include these basic requirements. Dogs must:
- be at least a year old
- be healthy, parasite-free and up to date on all shots
- have basic obedience skills (sit, down/stay, come)
- be friendly, gentle and have good visiting manners
- be able to retain his/her steadiness and good manners around wheelchairs, walkers, crutches
- be willing and able to tolerate clumsy, exuberant petting
- be able to work well around other dogs
There is no specific training needed to become a therapy dog. Obedience training need not go beyond the simple basics of sit, down, stay and come. Most dogs that easily handle encounters with strollers, bikes, skateboards, etc. while out on daily walks are generally undaunted by the medical equipment encountered in nursing facilities. Dogs who enjoy playing with children will be quite accustomed to their rough and tumble play style and very tolerant of exuberant petting.
If your Coton is well socialized and well behaved around people and around other dogs, I encourage you to discover the joys of sharing your little love ambassador as a pet therapist. It's certainly one of the most enjoyable and rewarding activities you can participate in with your dog.
National therapy dog organizations
The Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs, Inc.
80 Powder Mill Road, Morris Plains, NJ 07950
Toll Free: 888-PET-5770
289 Perimeter Road East
Renton, WA 98055-1329
(425) 226-7357 (8:30 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. PST, Monday - Friday)
Therapy Dogs, Inc.
P.O. Box 5868
Cheyenne, WY 82003
Therapy Dogs International, Inc.
88 Bartley Road
Flanders, NJ 07836
Dogs With Jobs
Sharyn Hatch and Kathleen Lowmiller from the June 2006 ACQ
Sharyn and Kathleen are members of the Delta Society through the Pet Partners Program and are also active members of the Hope Crisis Response Team in Southern California. Hope Crisis Response is a National Non Profit Organization. The following excerpt from
National Geographic News explains the origins of the organization.
Crisis-Response Dogs Offer Comfort After Tragedy—Maryann Mott for National Geographic News November 11, 2002
The simple act of petting a dog can lift people's spirits, and no one knows that better than Cindy Ehlers. In 1998, Ehlers created Hope Crisis Response, a nonprofit organization that provides animal-assisted support to people traumatized by crises and disasters such as last year's terrorist attacks on September 11.
Similar to search-and-rescue dogs, the 60 crisis-response teams throughout the country go anywhere they are needed. The difference is that Hope Crisis dogs help rescue people emotionally. Ehlers, an animal behaviorist, started Hope Crisis after she and her therapy dog, Bear, helped students cope with the aftermath of a high school shooting in Oregon. At the school, Bear, a keeshond, made her way to five withdrawn teenagers in different parts of the library. Some students talked to the fluffy black-and-gray dog; others held her and cried. Then, with Bear by their side, the teenagers spoke to mental health professionals—something they had refused to do before, Ehlers said.
"Crisis and trauma can cause isolation, damaging one's ability to communicate and start relationships," Ehlers explained. "Animal-assisted therapy teams with specialized training help to break that isolation and open up the lines of communication." Dogs can recognize when someone needs emotional support, said Ehlers. When people are afraid, they emit a pheromone in their sweat and breath. Bear, as well as other dogs, probably picks up on that scent, she said.
Being around dogs can have a calming effect. Studies have shown that physiological changes occur when people touch dogs: a drop in heart rate, lower blood pressure, and reduced stress.