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— November 19, 2013 —

Who’s therapy is it anyway?
by Daniel McElroy Jr.

Canine therapy work is interesting, demanding and rewarding, but who gets the most out of it? I really don’t know.

Tomorrow is my first graduation. Not from high school or college, but from my first every therapy program. My dog Jelly and Amy and I have been volunteering at the Jesse Brown Veteran’s Administration Medical Center (JBVA) for the last ten weeks. This Canine Therapy Corps program is the first time JBVA has had a goal-directed, group therapy dog program for the veterans there, and tomorrow we graduate.

I think the graduation is really intended to be for the veterans and the dogs, but I feel like I’m graduating as well. In the dozen or so years I’ve been training dogs, I’ve trained them to be in magazines, on T.V. shows and I've competed in obedience and protection trials. Despite all that, I can honestly say that I have not enjoyed anything I’ve done with my dogs more than this program.

I’ve trained quite a few dogs to be “therapy dogs” for Canine Therapy Corps. I have long appreciated and supported their mission. The dogs that they certify are very special animals and I have known all along that they bring a great deal of comfort to the patients they work with. I have a whole new level of understanding now that I have participated in a program first hand.

The certification test to be a Canine Therapy Corps dog is tough. When most people think of “Therapy Dogs” they imagine a happy dog that visits hospital patients and nursing homes to brighten the patients’ day. That is correct for many therapy dog programs. With Canine Therapy Corps however, Jelly’s job is different. Her leash and the responsibility for her for the hour is turned over to her veteran. The goal is to help the veteran build a mutually trusting and respectful relationship with her. This is done through obedience and agility exercises, as well as trick training. Teaching the dog something new teaches the human at the same time.

As an evaluator for Canine Therapy Corps, I have had to (unfortunately) tell a number of people that their dog wasn’t quite ready. It’s a let-down, but it just means that they will need to get back to training and prepare their dog a little bit better next time. I am a tough evaluator because as an x-ray technologist, I’ve worked in hospitals for over 20 years. I have a pretty good idea of what kind of chaos can actually happen in a hospital and I never want to certify a dog that might cause a problem in that setting.

But doing all of that never quite gave me the appreciation that actually participating in a program has given me. On the first day, Jelly was absolutely overjoyed to be there…she got to meet new people. After all, that is her favorite thing. Once the dogs got paired up with their veteran, we tell them that it’s “their dog” for the hour or so that they are working. We, the handlers, are there to support, instruct and facilitate, but the dog and veteran relationship should be at the forefront. We should be in the background.

I’m not trained in psychology, so I can’t explain all the complexities of a program or why it accomplishes what it does. I can only tell you what I observe. I have observed a guy who was a little nervous about a big, black, vocal dog become completely comfortable with her. I have observed a young woman go from being scared of big dogs to falling for a beautiful red pit bull. I’ve seen the quiet guy talk and crack a few jokes. Basically, I’ve seen people overcome things that they are uncomfortable with and I’ve seen barriers come down. After all, isn’t that what life is all about?

Watching Jelly go from looking to me for direction or trying to run back to me in the middle of a session, to learning that she is “working” for, someone else was an interesting experience as well. At first, as soon as she got the chance, she would run to wherever I was sitting. Now, after 10 weeks she really gets that she’s supposed to be working with “her” veteran. I don’t know if she realizes that she is doing “therapy,” but she is working for him AND enjoying it.

Part of our work includes sessions where these men and women discuss why they are there and what they are learning from the program. These sessions are a lesson in “stop my whining.” I am a veteran myself, but I served during the wind-down of the first Gulf War. My service was essentially a routine job where I got to shoot guns every once in a while. Some of these veterans are from the Vietnam era and some from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their service experiences are far different from mine. I respect them greatly.

I leave JBVA each week with a renewed sense of purpose. I feel like I am meant to be involved in this. As I walk the halls of JBVA, I am approached weekly by veterans who are interested in the dogs. They often express interest in having their own therapy or service dog and I try to guide them to people who can help. There are programs that place shelter dogs with veterans and provide training to the dogs so they can be of service to them. It’s a win-win and I am looking to get involved with a program like this as well.

The amount of time that goes into volunteering at the hospital is pretty minimal. It’s about 2 hours a week in total. What I get out of it lasts a lot longer, so I really do wonder. Who’s therapy is it anyway?

If you are interested in getting more information about Canine Therapy Corp, visit their website here: www.caninetherapycorps.org. If you’d like to have your dog evaluated for therapy work, please contact me directly at danielm@barkavenueplaycare.com. I will get back to you within a day or two. More info on Bark Avenue’s therapy dog preparation training on our webpage here: www.barkavenueplaycare.com/training/therapy.

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