Jake and I came to Visiting Dog work entirely unprepared.
When you read the many books and articles about "Therapy Dogs" you'll see a common caveat throughout: Know Your Dog. In retrospect I understand why that is great advice and I support it entirely but five years ago, when he and I walked into a nursing home for the first time, I had barely met Jake, knew nothing about Visiting Dogs and I certainly could not have predicted the impact which working with my dog at Senior Citizens facilities would have on my life.
Jake and I were new to each other. I had found him at a kill shelter on Day Two of what were to be the last three days of his life, an eight months old puppy of indeterminate ancestry. Our best guess is Malamute and German Shepherd with possibly some Rottweiler thrown in. This was Jake's third and final stay at the shelter. He had been picked up as a roaming puppy when he was three months old, was adopted out, ran away, was picked up again and adopted out again. And ran away again.
Running is in his genes. Jake is governed by his Northern roots. He runs not away; Jake runs because he has to. The German Shepherd part of him makes him want to be a Good Dog, makes him want to obey my calls of "Come!" but his sled dog drive commands him to run joyfully with the wind, to explore, visit and be social, to be a member of a pack. Of all my dogs Jake is the one most pack oriented and while one might assume that his pack drive is precisely what would keep him at home it's really just the opposite. To Jake, any pack will do, the newer, the better.
I am convinced that it is Jake's pack drive which makes him such an excellent Visiting Dog. Each visit to an old folks home gives him the opportunity to meet new people (new pack members), make new friends, form new bonds. To dogs, each day is a new day and to Jake each visit is a new visit even to places he's been to many times before.
We had known each other just two weeks when we were asked to fill in for a woman whose dog was unable to go that day. "I promised the old people we'd come today," she had said to me on the phone, "but Heidi is sick and I just can't let the old folks down. Will you go with Jake?" I will always remember her words. "I can't let the old folks down". This is the very commitment which keeps us going back time and time again, which pulls us out of our recliners during the worst blizzard of the century, makes us leave our favorite TV program and say to our dogs, "Come on, let's go to work." If we've done it once with a good dog, a dog suited to the work, a dog with talent and empathy, we will do it again and again because the "high" we get from visiting with our dogs, the sense of team work, of woman and dog as a whole rather than two separate beings - neither one of which could be as effective alone as they are together - this high is indescribable and can only be experienced if you have a good dog by your side.
"Sure," I said to my friend, "we'll go." I knew nothing about visiting old people in a nursing home and I certainly didn't know this dog well enough to be able to predict how he would respond to that environment. It was foolish of me to just blithely snap a leash on an eight months old puppy and rely on a nylon slip collar for control. Certainly we hadn't had enough time together yet for me to have taught this young dog any manners.
But Jake knew. He walked into the facility like he was an old pro at this work. His tail never stopped wagging. He flattened his ears so far back that they seemed to fold into themselves, an action which makes his head appear dome-shaped, he found his silly Malamute grin and he suddenly became the cutest, friendliest dog in the Universe. He positioned himself just right next to wheelchairs so the resident could reach his fuzzy head for a pat. He cautiously moved to the side when a resident with a walker approached him, he dutifully jumped up on a patient's bed when asked to do so, he never licked a face unless invited to "gimme a kiss". He was a natural and I was awed.
The second time I went back was only to see if he could do it again. I was testing my dog and, to be honest, I'm ashamed of that now. This little dog didn't need testing. He knew perfectly well what was expected of him and he gave the old folks all he had. He had found a pack! How could I have doubted him?
We have since been to many different places, Jake and I, and we will keep on going until one or the other of us can't do it anymore. It is true that I go because I "can't let the old folks down" but there's much more to it than a sense of commitment. My dog likes to work and especially, my dog likes this work, Visiting Dog work. I go because I can't let my dog down.
I have, in the intervening years, learned a great deal about Animal Assisted Therapy, the concept under which most animal-to-human interactions in a formal setting are classified. Many people who take their dogs to nursing homes, rehab centers, residential facilities and the like claim to do "therapy" work with their "therapy dogs" but that is really a misnomer. Therapy dogs are animals which are used in a very controlled environment, often at the recommendation of a patient's health care provider, with the intent of achieving a specific goal or eliciting a hoped-for response from the patient.
Visiting Dogs are those who do just that: they visit. They move from patient to patient for hugs and pats and belly scritches. They may linger here and there with a favorite resident but they are not generally a part of the patient's treatment plan. Jake is primarily a Visiting Dog. He has, on three occasions, been prescribed, if you will, for the well-being of a patient but what we do mostly is just visit and make people smile.
There are a number of local and national registries which administer qualifying tests to ascertain a dog's suitability for Visiting Dog work and will ultimately certify him as "Therapy Dog". I'm not going to argue semantics. I wholly and completely support the concept of suitability testing but I believe that some cautions are in order before you decide to join a therapy dog group or registry.
Of the many organizations out there I would opt for a national group rather than a local one for the simple reason that a national registry will allow you the mobility you may need if you take your dog into a facility outside of your local area. Jake is registered with Therapy Dogs International which is headquartered in New Jersey and tests dogs nationwide in affiliation with the American Kennel Club. We had explored a local group and found it to be a complete disaster as regards expectations of the dog as well as insurance limitations.
A good national registry will provide insurance coverage for you and your dog at any facility at which you choose to visit. They don't proscribe where you can go although they may require you to participate in a minimum number of visits per year. This is to prevent the "glory seekers", people who like to collect letters behind their dogs's names without actually doing the work.
To qualify for the TDI registration Jake had to pass the Canine Good Citizen test under the umbrella of the American Kennel Club and was then tested by TDI certified personnel for therapy dog suitability. This involved his being able to deal with strange and unusual situations: a person tapping him on the rump with a cane, an aluminum walker thrown in his direction, being approached by a person in a wheelchair (the dog is not supposed to jump up on the occupant), being in a crowd of people and being touched by them, having his ears and his tail pulled and having fingers stuck in his mouth and eyes. Having been to many nursing homes and having observed those very actions in real life I found the TDI test to be realistic and representative of what a dog and handler may expect on visits.
To learn more about participating in Visiting Dog activities and how to register your dog I recommend you do a search on "Therapy Dogs" with any one of the search engines. The Latham Foundation in California, Delta Society in Washington, Therapy Dogs International in New Jersey, and Therapy Dogs, Inc. in Wyoming are probably the best sources of information you'll find. There are many others, to be sure, but these groups are the ones who've been of greatest value to me. You may want to begin your explorations at Dog-Play.com or at Golden-Retriever.com and go from there.
Whatever you do, if you have a well mannered, friendly, polite dog, be he a pet or a competition dog, you may well have a Visiting Dog. What you do for your community and for the Senior Citizens in it by visiting them is obvious. What those visits will do for you, for your dog, and for the bond between you is not something I can tell you. You must experience it for yourself but I can promise you this: if you have a good dog you will never again be the same after you've gone visiting just once.
Anka Andrews, owner of Eclectic Translations, is a translator and interpreter by profession but dogs are her avocation. A native of Germany and a freelance writer of anything related to dogs, she has lived in various places in the U.S. since 1967. Most of her time was spent in southeastern Idaho where she learned to love fishing, hiking, and camping, always with any number of dogs in tow. Dogs have been constant companions in Anka's life. She and her husband currently share their home in rural Pennsylvania with three GSDs, Hasso, Arko, and Marcus and a GSD/Northern mix, Jake. Anka and her husband manage the e-mail list TGSD-L for owners of working GSDs. She is the creative force behind In Memoriam, a poignant memorial to German Shepherd Dogs who have crossed the Bridge. Anka spends her free time visiting geriatric facilities with her dogs Jake and Arko, sharing with the old people the joys of loving dogs.