I became involved with Animal Assisted Therapy after reading about what was then ‘Delta Society’ (now Pet Partners) in my quarterly newsletter from the Arizona Humane Society. I took the training at the Campus for Compassion that had recently opened in 2003 and subsequently Sierra was registered with them and we became a team.
My first pet therapy visit was at the Virginia Pulliam Cancer Center where patients were receiving infusion treatments. Sierra and I did this for several months and I learned of the AAT program at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.
We met Mary Lou Jennings – the Coordinator of the AAT program at PCH and went through several exercises and observations to make sure Sierra was ready for the intense, dynamic and high activity environment that exists at PCH. We were accepted into their program and this year marks my 13th anniversary at PCH and being part of an Animal Assisted Therapy team. Sierra volunteered (she even had a badge) for over 7 years and only stopped when she became sick with cancer. Kahuna was registered as well and he had been alternating visits with Sierra. Shortly after she died, I decided to try to register Forrest, something I thought he would not do well with but he rocked the test and immediately was qualified for a complex environment. Kahuna stopped visiting PCH when he got sick and I retired Forrest last year at 14 years old just as Butterscotch was registered. She has been visiting PCH now for 1 1/2 years. I hope Bear will be a therapy dog too but we have a ways to go with his training and maturity level before he can follow in the big pawprints that went before him.
I have only ever been associated with Pet Partner/Delta Society, however there are quite a few teams at PCH that certify through Therapy Dogs International. Pet Partners offers on line training courses and a handler test, followed by a test for the team that is administered by a Pet Partner Evaluator.
Basic commands are evaluated; sit, stay, down and also an interaction with a ‘neutral’ dog, where the dog being tested is expected to remain calm and uninterested when another team passes by. There are a series of exercises where a variety of people, are brought in to determine how/if the dog reacts to them: different ethnicity and sexes, wearing hats, using wheelchairs and talking loudly – in fact yelling at each other. There is also an interaction where several people come up to the dog and lean over them, bump into them and pet them, often in a clumsy way. The purpose of all of these tests is to see how the dog reacts and make sure none of these situations, which are often encountered during a pet therapy visit, scare the dog or cause them to bark or worse still, try to bite.
Pet Therapy is a wonderful tool for many situations; nursing homes, schools, hospitals, and of course, ministering to first responders when tragic events occur. The most important thing I have learned over the last 13 years is that the dog needs to enjoy the work. They need to like and respond to people since some of the things we ask of them do not come naturally to dogs.