Therapy Dogs

Therapy Dogs

To many hospital patients and residents at convalescent homes, happiness is a warm puppy. Jane Allen of Stamford, a Therapy Dog International pet therapy volunteer, has seen the medicinal effect of her tail-wagging Standard Poodle Sunny when she brings him to visit patients at Stamford Hospital. “Sunny just wants to give comfort,” says Allen.

A man with heart failure who was drifting in and out of consciousness told Allen how nice it was for a dying man to see such a beautiful dog. Sunny laid his head on the pillow next to the man and even with his eyes closed, the man reached out and pet him. Allen found out he died later that night. “Another elderly man told us his whole life story, about the dogs he had had and what hey meant to him,” says Allen. “I think dogs that become therapy dogs appreciate the work.”

Other area organizations providing therapy dogs are Bideawee ( The Delta Society (, and The Good Dog Foundation ( There are currently more than 800 Good Dog volunteer teams working in over 200 facilities throughout New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Bideawee was one of the first humane organizations to establish a pet therapy program. Launched in 1982, the program has grown to include dedicated two-legged pet therapy volunteers and their 168 dogs, 8 cats, 3 rabbits and one 230 lb. black pig, as well as pocket pets and in some locations, horses and llamas. According to Deborah Green, Senior Manager of Volunteers, Education and Outreach, the animal should really enjoy the work. An animal who gets stressed out wouldn’t make a good therapy dog. This type of service is not for the independent or shy type but more for animals that thrive on lots of attention and contact.

A trainer can’t change basic temperament. The therapy dog must be able to tolerate grooming from strangers, obey commands, and not get rattled by the presence of wheelchairs, crutches, gurneys and strange smells and sounds. As of July 1, 2008, Bideawee accepted volunteer teams who are registered with a nationally recognized animal assisted therapy organization such as the Delta Society. Local organizations will be considered upon an evaluation of their guidelines. However, Bideawee does accept a New York City registration from the Good Dog Foundation.

Delta has strict guidelines for a dog in order to become a Canine Good Citizen. A dog must be a year old to be a therapy dog and must be living in the volunteer’s home at least for six months. “Some with younger dogs take the course with the understanding that the pet can’t be tested until he’s one year old,” says Sally Sizer, who teaches and evaluates dogs for Delta Society at classes held at Doggone Smart in Norwalk. There is no maximum age. Sizer trained a 10-year-old dog who worked as a therapy dog until he was 15. A team evaluator screens the volunteer and her dog to ensure they are ready for therapy pet classes, then they can enroll in the prep class series which consists of six one-hour classes, after which partners are evaluated with a pass/fail system. The test is species specific; “A cat wouldn’t be expected to sit or stand on command,” says Sizer. Once a dog passes, certification is good for two years. The basic commitment required is a minimum of one visit a month or 20 hours a year. Sizer has a database of facilities looking for Delta partners. Sizer herself brings her French bulldogs to reading programs. “After the kids read an entire book, Willie rides his skateboard. It’s good to keep as many populations involved as possible.”

Volunteer Joan Blumenfeld of Westport, a geriatric case manager in private practice, brings her Maltese Bromley, a working lap dog, with her when she visits her elderly clients. He also visits hospice patients and groups suffering from dementia. Rosenfeld remembers one patient who was dying of cancer. “Bromley got in his bed every week. He didn’t add days to his life, but he did add life to his life.”

Delta Pet Of The Year Brasil, a Whippet, visits patients at Stamford Hospital with his owner Don Smith of Darien. Brasil has put in 1300 pet therapy hours and received his award in Chicago. In addition to visiting the hospital, Brasil also encourages young readers as part of a national program called READ–Reading Education Activity Dogs. Many of the other dogs participating in the program also visit local hospitals and provide company to terminally ill patients.

Dogs must also be a year old to participate in Therapy Dogs International’s therapy program. But to become a Good Dog team, the dog must be at least 6 months old and the handler needs to have the desire and availability to volunteer. Whereas Delta certification is good for two years, Good Dog evaluates dogs every year, but does not require a minimum commitment. Adult volunteers are not only taught how to work with their dog, but also how to comfortably and confidently interact with all types of patient populations in a variety of situations. Dogs are trained, through positive reinforcement only, to hone their temperaments and gain the necessary mannerisms and skills to navigate a healthcare environment and become a therapeutic assistance to someone in need. Teams are tested and evaluated throughout the training course and certified upon completion of the course to work as a Good Dog Team. They are also monitored and assisted as they first enter animal assisted therapy work. Good Dog volunteers visit facilities in Manhattan, as well as other boroughs, Westchester and Fairfield Counties.

Dogs must be ‘bomb proof’, meaning a dog is impervious to strange sounds or smells as well as things being dropped in a medical setting, regardless of the organization and the volunteer must present a certificate verifying his health. Before a dog is accepted in Therapy Dogs International, he has to know basic commands that are taught in obedience class. The TDI class lasts ten weeks. Classes have been offered for the last six and a half years at Bandilane Canine Center in Stamford and are taught three times a year. “All dogs give therapy to their owner but it takes a lot of control and training and socialization to take the therapy dog test,” says Joyce Diamond, who prepares dogs and owners at Bandilane.

Volunteers who are certified by any of the organizations are covered by insurance. All current TDI Associate Members and their dogs are covered by TDI’s Primary Volunteer Liability Insurance policy and Secondary Volunteer Accident Insurance. Delta Society carries a primary commercial general liability insurance policy (“CGLI”) for its employees, officers, directors and qualified volunteers for accidents that occur during the policy period. A Pet Partners Handler Team is covered by this insurance upon receipt of the team’s acceptance letter and ends at the expiration of the team’s Pet Partners registration. Delta recommends that Pet Partners Handlers also carry a homeowner’s, tenant homeowner’s, or condominium owner’s insurance policy. The CGLI policy might apply in circumstances where a Pet Partners Handlers’ homeowners policy does not, or vice versa; or the two policies might both apply. Joyce Diamond points out insurance coverage as the reason most people don’t go it alone. Most facilities won’t allow therapy animals not trained by any of the recognized and established organizations.

There are exceptions. Kelly Martin of Stratford, a speech therapist in private practice, works with children with autism and other disorders and for the last six years she has always brought along her Shiperke, Zorro when she meets with them individually. Her co-workers have always brought their dogs. Since Martin meets with six to eight clients a day, Zorro has his own quarters to retreat to if things get too hectic. “We do hellos very slowly. It depends on the kids. The kids with autism are disoriented and the dog gives them a chance to talk about a shared interest,” says Martin. “The kids engage better with Zorro at times than they do with people. They’re fascinated.”

Veterinarians at the South Wilton Veterinary Group screen Zorro to make sure he’s healthy on a twice a year basis; the organizations require once a year clearance from vets. “We’ve been taking care of therapy dogs for years,” says Dr. Nicholas Sitinas, one of the seven veterinarians in the practice. “They provide so much help to people. They bring a spot of sunshine to their lives.”